Leaders of Southern Africa Development Community are discussing regional conflicts, including the situation in Zimbabwe. The 14-nation group is holding a one-day meeting in Malawi.

Opening the SADC summit, Malawian President Bakili Muluzi called for peaceful, free, fair and transparent elections in Zimbabwe.

The country's presidential poll is scheduled for March. Mr. Muluzi said he and other SADC leaders hope every Zimbabwean will be able to "participate effectively in the elections."

Some onlookers had hoped for a more strongly worded criticism of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. But other analysts believe the southern African leaders are unlikely to turn against one of their own, at least not in public.

But Mr. Mugabe was scheduled to brief his colleagues in private on the latest events in his country.

The summit comes amid a deteriorating political situation in Zimbabwe. Just last week, the ruling party forced harsh new legislation through parliament, making it much harder for opposition parties to campaign for the election.

The human rights group Amnesty International is calling for SADC leaders to send a strong and consistent message to Zimbabwe that it must improve its human rights record.

The group has issued a statement saying the deteriorating human rights situation puts the possibility of free and fair elections in jeopardy. Amnesty warns that what it calls the "violent repression of political opposition" could degenerate into civil war.

The group urged SADC to send a team of human-rights monitors to Zimbabwe immediately.

But some analysts believe those pleas are falling on deaf ears. As the SADC summit opened in Blantyre, Malawian authorities arrested and deported five Zimbabwean human rights activists, who had hoped to lobby for support on the sidelines of the meeting.

Claude Kabemba is a senior policy analyst with the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa. Speaking to VOA earlier this month in Lusaka, he said he believes the human rights situation will improve in Zimbabwe, but only after the March elections.

"You can only see a peaceful Zimbabwe after elections," he said. "It would be very naive to pretend we can have a peaceful Zimbabwe before the elections."

Zimbabwe was not the only issue on the summit agenda. SADC leaders were also scheduled to discuss the wars in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Muluzi called for an immediate end to both conflicts.

In addition to Congolese President Joseph Kabila, two Congolese rebel leaders attended the meeting. So did Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whose troops are backing the rebels. But the rebels' other ally, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, refused to attend and sent his foreign minister instead.

The summit is likely to lay groundwork for the next round of peace talks, which take place in South Africa later this month.