The 14-nation Southern African Development Community, SADC, has begun a crucial summit in Lusaka, Zambia, with the crisis in Zimbabwe at the top of the agenda. Peta Thornycroft reports for VOA that the two leaders attracting the most attention at the summit are Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe and South African leader Thabo Mbeki, who is the SADC-appointed mediator on Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe's veteran leader, Robert Mugabe, was given a rousing welcome from delegates and members of the public at the opening of the summit in Lusaka Thursday.

SADC leaders are gathered for a regular summit, but it has a central focus, the ever-deepening political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe. The country has the highest inflation rate in the world, and 80 percent of its people live below the poverty line.

In March, at a special SADC summit on Zimbabwe, President Mbeki was appointed to mediate between President Mugabe's ruling party, ZANU-PF, and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. After some urging, Mr. Mbeki's team finally managed to persuade ZANU-PF to join the process, and two substantial sessions were held between the two parties in Pretoria.

Although no details of the dialogue have been made public, well-placed political sources say that the two parties have been engaged in detailed negotiations over a new constitution ahead of next year's national elections.

President Mugabe has said Zimbabwe does not need a new constitution.

In addition ZANU-PF and the MDC negotiators had several sessions in Harare last month where a new constitution was the main point of debate.

After the opening ceremony Thursday, President Mbeki presented an oral report on Zimbabwe behind closed doors. He was expected to talk about progress and difficulties in the dialogue so far and the road still to be traveled before next year's election.

South Africa has made it clear that the next national elections in Zimbabwe should be free and fair leading to undisputed results.

President Robert Mugabe has said he would stand for ZANU-PF in the presidential election next March, when he will be 84.

The summit ends Friday.