JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A regional bloc of southern African states said it wants three of Zimbabwe's neighbors to appoint officials to a committee charged with preparing for elections in Zimbabwe, but the country's long-ruling party indicated on Monday it would resist such a move.
The 15-nation Southern African Development Community SADC urged member states South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique late Sunday to appoint officials to the Zimbabwean committee and said Zimbabwean leaders should hasten to create an environment for free and fair elections. President Robert Mugabe has been accused of using violence and election fraud to hold onto power in Zimbabwe. Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have been in power since independence from Britain in 1980.
The ZANU-PF released a statement indicating it would resist including the three countries on the committee even as Mugabe was quoted by Zimbabwean state media Monday as welcoming the outcome of the SADC summit in Johannesburg. Mugabe's supporters are calling for polls this year to replace his shaky coalition with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. Independent groups say the possibility of a vote has led to attacks on Mugabe's opponents.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a news conference in Tanzania on Monday that the U.S. is encouraged by the regional bloc's stance, saying it emphasizes that Mugabe must follow an agreement that paved the way for the coalition after inconclusive and violent 2008 elections. The agreement calls for reforms before a new vote. Both sides in the conflict have turned to SADC, of which Zimbabwe is a member, to mediate.
The Zimbabwean committee, the Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee, is currently comprised of members of Mugabe's party, of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change and of a third party allied with the MDC.
Zimbabwe was once the region's breadbasket, but now its main export is millions of people who have fled economic collapse. Observers blame Mugabe's orders to seize thousands of white-owned farms in 2000, disrupting the country's agriculture-based economy.
In addition to the economic misery, Zimbabwe is politically isolated because of the Mugabe regime's brutality. But Zimbabwe's neighbors have been reluctant to completely shun Mugabe, saying he must be part of a negotiated solution.
Dewa Mavhinga, spokesman for a coalition of Zimbabwean rights and development groups, said SADC's action shows it wants to step up involvement in solving Zimbabwe's festering political situation.
"There is definitely a shift that ZANU must contend with," Mavhinga said.
Still, Mavhinga said it will be difficult to translate words in a communique into change on the ground.
In a related development, two leaders of the MDC's youth wing learned after leaving Zimbabwe for Johannesburg for a SADC briefing that police are seeking them on murder charges in the death of a police officer, according to Sibanengi Dube, a party spokesman in Johannesburg.
Several party activists have been arrested after the killing of police officer Petros Mutedza on May 30 in Harare. Tsvangirai supporters deny involvement in the policeman's death and say the arrests are politically motivated.
Dube said the two canceled the briefing because they feared being attacked by ZANU-PF agents in Johannesburg. Dube said they would return to Zimbabwe Tuesday to face arrest and trial to prove their innocence in the homicide case.