Regional leaders meet to tackle Zimbabwe crisis

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe meets regional leaders at a summit in South Africa on Monday to seek approval to form a government with or without his rivals, a stance critics say will deepen his country's crisis, reported Reuters.

Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), signed a power-sharing agreement in September but have been deadlocked over control of cabinet posts, with neither side showing any sign of compromise.

Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have urged the opposition to join a unity government but say they will not hesitate to form one without him.

A deputy minister billed Monday's summit as the last chance for rescuing the power-sharing pact, viewed as the best hope for averting total collapse in Zimbabwe, where prices double every day and cholera has killed more than 2,700 people.

"The way forward soon after this summit, whether there is an agreement or there is no agreement, President Mugabe is going to form a cabinet," deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga told South African public broadcaster SAFM radio. "He will obviously try to leave room for Tsvangirai so that whenever he changes his mind, but that is not going to be for too long," he said.

Tsvangirai says ZANU-PF is trying to sideline it and wants control of powerful ministries such as Home Affairs. He says no deal is possible unless party activists are released from jail.

The 15-nation Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) summit hosted by South African President Kgalema Motlanthe hopes to break the impasse as Zimbabwe heads toward economic collapse and grapples with a humanitarian crisis.

Similar summits have failed to push the political process forward largely because SADC is divided over how it should deal with Mugabe, analysts say.

SADC members such as Botswana and Zambia have taken a tough line on Mugabe, who has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980, but others still revere him as a former liberation hero.

Botswana's President Seretse Khama Ian Khama, one of Mugabe's harshest critics, will attend Monday's summit. Ties between Zimbabwe and neighboring Botswana were strained when Khama said a new election was the only solution to the crisis.

Regional leaders including SADC mediator and former South African President Thabo Mbeki failed last week to persuade the rivals to form a government.

Mugabe has accused the MDC of working with Western powers to oust him. He has remained defiant through several rounds of talks that have stalled over the control of cabinet ministeries.

Western leaders want Mugabe to step down and are pushing for a democratic government to embrace economic reforms before billions of dollars in aid is offered.

Without a political settlement, it is unlikely sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by Western countries will be lifted.

Zimbabwe, ravaged by the world's highest rate of inflation, severe food and fuel shortages and a virtually worthless economy, faces Africa's biggest cholera epidemic in a decade.

The water-borne disease has killed nearly 2,800 people and infected more than 40,000 since it broke out in August.

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