Mugabe boycotts African summit following invitation to Tsvangirai

Zimbabwe's embattled president, Robert Mugabe, has decided to snub an emergency summit of southern African leaders at which they had been expected to call for the release of the long-delayed results of Zimbabwe's presidential elections.

The decision to send three ministers to today's summit in Lusaka instead of the President, whose presence had initially been confirmed, is a blow to the summit host, President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia who also invited Mr Mugabe's rival, the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Sensing that the mood among his neighbours might be changing and he could face a showdown, Mr Mugabe started prevaricating yesterday about attending the summit, before it was announced he would boycott it altogether.

Sources told The Independent that Mr Mugabe was apparently incensed by Mr Tsvangirai's presence at the summit of the Southern Africa Development Community.

"He [Mugabe] believes Tsvangirai is not a head of state and should not have been invited at all ... He still does not want a face-to-face meeting with Tsvangirai," said a Zimbabwean government official who requested anonymity.

The official said that Mr Mugabe was also angry that other regional leaders had been meeting Mr Tsvangirai, in effect acknowledging his claims that he has won the presidential elections.

Mr Mwanawasa, the SADC chairman, is said to have invited Mr Tsvangirai to get a balanced view of Zimbabwe's situation.

While Mr Tsvangirai hopes that the meeting will help in persuading Mr Mugabe to resign gracefully and allow a smooth transition for the opposition to assume the reins of power, Mr Mugabe's government wants the summit to be a mere opportunity for regional leaders to receive an update on the situation in Zimbabwe.

The leaders are expected to press for the release of the long-delayed results of the 29 March presidential poll. But sources said the SADC had not been expected to call for Mr Mugabe to quit immediately, as demanded by Mr Tsvangirai in talks with South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki late on Thursday.

One diplomat said: "I am not holding my breath ... There surely ought to be some fireworks at the summit but I will be surprised if at the end ... we have a clear and categorical statement from these leaders acknowledging that Mugabe is the root cause of all these problems and must step aside to enable his country to have a fresh start."

Some opposition officials are nevertheless hopeful that the mood at the summit will be different because, unlike previous summits at which Mr Mugabe's neighbours failed to read the riot act, Zimbabwe is now clearly on the brink. Only quick regional action can halt impending disaster in the former British colony, they said.

Mr Mugabe has extended the life of his cabinet, which was dissolved alongside parliament before the 29 March elections, in a clear sign that he is not about to give up. The MDC secretary general, Tendai Biti, said the extension was unconstitutional as all cabinet ministers have to be elected MPs. Mr Mugabe was extending the terms of many ministers who had been voted out.

The Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, said the extension was constitutional because the country cannot operate in a vacuum while presidential results are awaited for a new leader to form a new cabinet. Mr Biti said Mr Mugabe had staged a "constitutional " coup d'état by remaining in power after an election in which the MDC claims victory.

The MDC has raised the stakes by announcing that it would not participate in any election rerun and wants Mr Tsvangirai to be sworn into office.

It is understood the US, the EUand individual European governments are separately reaching out to SADC and its individual leaders to ensure today's summit succeeds in getting Mugabe to change course.

Gordon Brown, George Bush and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel are said to have spoken to Mr Mbeki and other regional leaders.

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