Regional leaders opened on Saturday an emergency summit to discuss Zimbabwe's disputed elections, but hopes of a tough statement dimmed hours earlier when South Africa's president said there was no crisis.
However Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, in the chair, said it would be wrong to turn a blind eye on Zimbabwe, while stresssing the summit was not intended to put his Zimbabwean counterpart Robert Mugabe in the dock.
The first guest to arrive at the Lusaka summit was Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai who has claimed outright victory over Mugabe in the March 24 presidential election, though the result has still not been announced.
Arriving shortly after Mwanawasa, Tsvangirai was greeted by ironic chants of "President, President" but made no comment to reporters. The summit opened shortly afterwards.
Opposition hopes the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) might issue a hard-hitting statement and even put pressure on Mugabe to stand down were dealt a blow hours earlier when South Africa's Thabo Mbeki stopped over in Harare.
After his first face-to-face talks with Mugabe since the elections, Mbeki ignored pleas for outside pressure to be levied upon the veteran Zimbabwean leader and demanded simply that things be allowed to run their course.
"There is no crisis in Zimbabwe," he told journalists. "The body authorised to release the results is the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, let's wait for them to announce the results."
Mugabe, alongside him, made no mention of the election, but denied he was snubbing the SADC summit. "We are very good friends and very good brothers. Sometimes you attend, sometimes you have other things holding you back," Mugabe said.
The head of his delegation in Lusaka had earlier dismissed the summit as unnecessary and angrily denounced the invitation granted to Tsvangirai.
"There is no need to regionalise the Zimbabwean crisis," Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa told AFP. "Inviting an opposition leader to a heads of state meeting is unheard of. We will not accept Tsvangirai to be part of this meeting." Zambian Foreign Minister Kabinga Bande played down Tsvangirai's presence, saying he had not been "invited to attend the summit per se" and was only there in case SADC wanted to hear his side of the story.
Southern African leaders have been heavily criticised over their traditional reluctance to speak out against Mugabe, who with 28 years at the helm is the longest-serving of them all.
Nevertheless many in SADC are fed up with the economic mess on their doorstep with inflation in Zimbabwe now well into six figures, unemployment at over 80 percent and average life expentancy down to 36 years of age.
Some three million Zimbabweans have left their homeland to find work or food, mostly to its giant neighbour South Africa.
"SADC cannot stand by and do nothing when one of its members is experiencing political and economic pain," Mwanawasa said. "It would be wrong to turn a blind eye," he added, but stressed that the Lusaka summit was "not intended to put President Mugabe in the dock."
Southern African speakers of parliament earlier issued a statement urging the regional leaders meeting to use their influence to pull Zimbabwe out of its political quagmire.
Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) says neither the 84-year-old incumbent nor Tsvangirai won a clear victory in the election and insists the battle must go to a second round.
"As far as we are concerned we have done our own collation of the vote and there's no clear winner. We are now gearing up for a run-off," Chinamasa told AFP in Lusaka.
But the opposition Movement for Democratic Change accuses Mugabe of launching a campaign of intimidation and has ruled out Tsvangirai's participation in what it says would be an undemocratic second ballot.
"The military has basically taken over," MDC number two Tendai Biti, who is accompanying Tsvangirai in Lusaka, told journalists.
"There is a constitutional coup d'etat that has taken place there and that's why this meeting is very critical," he said, calling on SADC to "speak out clearly and decisively against his dictatorship and the status quo."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has branded the situation in Zimbabwe as a disgrace to southern Africa, is among those who are hoping SADC reads the riot act to Mugabe.
"We are communicating with the leaders who have organized that summit. And we would call upon them to take a firm stand, and take a firm stand for democracy in Zimbabwe," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
0Prime Minister Gordon Brown of former colonial power Britain said Friday he was "appalled" by signs Mugabe was using violence in the wake of the elections and warned that the patience of the international community "is wearing thin." The opposition has called for a general strike on Tuesday, the day after a court is due to rule on an MDC bid to force the electoral commission to publish the presidential election result.