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African leaders stay silent on Mugabe

Africa's leaders have failed publicly to condemn Robert Mugabe for stealing Zimbabwe's presidential election by proceeding with a run-off vote in which he was sole candidate at the height of an officially orchestrated intimidation campaign.

At a summit of the 53 member states of the African Union – in which stable democracies remain a minority – Mr Mugabe was praised as a "hero" by the veteran President of Gabon, Omar Bongo.

Although he was not addressed as "Mr President" by fellow summiteers gathered in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the embattled Zimbabwean leader was comforted by speeches in which few spoke out about the political violence in his country. His most vocal opponent, President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa of Zambia, suffered a stroke and was rushed to hospital on the eve of the summit.

The summit host, President Hosni Mubarak, did not mention the Zimbabwe crisis directly in his opening speech. Raila Odinga, the Prime Minister of Kenya, was a lone voice sniping from the sidelines in Nairobi where he called for Zimbabwe to be suspended from the AU until "free and fair" elections can be held.

Conference sources said that while African leaders were more outspoken in private meetings, they declined to criticise Mr Mugabe in public. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda was said to have been "particularly unhelpful".

The summit is expected to wind up today with a call for dialogue between Mr Mugabe and the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who has urged the AU to deny the Zimbabwean President the legitimacy he craves. The dialogue is intended to produce a government of national unity or a transition to fresh elections.

The US and the EU have branded the election a "sham". Britain fears that Mr Mugabe will control the transitional arrangements unless they are conducted under the supervision of Mr Tsvangirai, who came ahead of the 84-year-old President in the first round of voting on 29 March. Lord Malloch Brown, the Foreign Office minister for Africa, came away disappointed with his talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, after the UN deputy secretary general, Asha-Rose Migiro, warned the AU that it faced a "moment of truth".