LUSAKA, Zambia Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe skipped a regional summit Saturday addressing the deepening crisis over the country's contentious presidential election, giving southern African leaders little chance to step up the pressure on him.
The summit reflected Mugabe's growing isolation, as well as cracks in the usually uniform solidarity shown toward him by the Southern African Development Community. Mugabe, who has been in power 28 years, is the region's longest-serving president.
After meeting with Mugabe in Zimbabwe, South African President Thabo Mbeki said "there is no crisis." But at the summit, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa urged his counterparts to "focus on helping Zimbabwe to find an answer that generally reflects the will of the Zimbabwean people."
In his opening speech, Mwanawasa said he had called the summit because of the failure of Zimbabwean officials to publish the results of March 29 presidential election.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, meanwhile, said it would conduct a full recount of the presidential and parliamentary vote on April 19, the state-run Sunday Mail newspaper reported. Commission chairman George Chiweshe said candidates, party representatives and observers would be allowed to witness the process, the paper said. Mugabe's party had demanded a recount.
Independent tallies indicate Mugabe lost, but garnered enough votes to force a runoff. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai says he won outright and has traveled the region asking neighboring leaders to push for Mugabe to step down.
Tsvangirai was invited to address the summit, an unprecedented move that further alienated Mugabe. But there appeared little likelihood the leaders would call for Mugabe's resignation.
Officials at the conference indicated they would focus on the delayed election results and not Mugabe's rule.
U.S. Ambassador Carmen Martinez, among more than a dozen diplomats on the sidelines of the summit, said the United States was looking for "at least one step forward."
"If SADC cannot even get a state to release their election results, it's going to be very difficult for SADC," she said.
Mbeki, the chief mediator on Zimbabwe, urged patience.
"Everybody is waiting for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to announce the results," he said in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, before flying to the summit in Zambia.
The release of Zimbabwe's election results ceased after results from legislative races held the same day as the presidential vote showed Mugabe's party lost control of parliament for the first time. The election commission has released no results from the presidential race, saying it was still verifying the votes.
Meanwhile, Mugabe has dug in his heels, banning political rallies amid opposition charges he was orchestrating a wave of violence to intimidate opponents.
Tendai Biti, secretary-general of Tsvangirai's party, said the military had taken control of Zimbabwe and urged the summit leaders to "speak strongly and decisively against the dictatorship."
"Our people are suffering, our people are being brutalized, our people are being traumatized," he told AP Television News in Lusaka.
International pressure has grown with the United States, former colonizer Britain, and the United Nations issuing daily statements demanding the results. Regional human rights and church organizations have made similar demands.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said the world's patience with Zimbabwe's regime was "wearing thin." Mugabe has dismissed Brown's criticism, calling the British leader a "little tiny dot" on the world stage.
Mugabe's allies indicated Saturday's summit was part of a Western plot to overthrow him because of his land reform program, which was touted as an effort to redistribute the wide swathes of fertile land owned by the tiny white community to poor blacks.
"This time, African leaders are supposed to do the bidding of the white West, that is to pressure Zimbabwe to abet regime change agenda," said a column in the state-run Herald newspaper.
At the southern African leaders' last summit seven months ago, they gave Mugabe a standing ovation, just months after a crackdown in which police beat Tsvangirai so badly he had to be hospitalized.
Now there are concerted demands for them to act.
"The very integrity and utility of the SADC is at stake," said New York-based Freedom House, which charts democracy's progress around the world.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, of Ghana, warned the leaders they have "a grave responsibility to act, not only because of the negative spillover effects on the region, but also to ensure that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are respected."
An estimated one-third of Zimbabwe's population has fled the country as it descended into political and economic chaos in recent years.
But Mwanawasa sought to reassure the Zimbabwean leader, saying, "this summit is not intended to put President Robert Mugabe in the dock."
Mugabe sent three hardline ministers from his outgoing Cabinet to represent him.
Despite his absence, Mugabe's credentials as a liberation leader in the war that ended white minority rule in his country could continue to protect him from criticism from his neighbors.
With Mugabe on the defensive after the election, ruling party officials have encouraged militants to invade the country's few remaining white-owned farms and some farms owned by black opponents, saying they were trying to protect Zimbabweans from encroaching colonialism. Opposition officials say such attacks are a smoke screen for assaults on mainly black opposition supporters.International human rights groups say they have received reports of dozens of politically motivated attacks, widespread enough to suggest a coordinated program of retribution.
Contributing: Joseph J. Schatz in Lusaka, Zambia, and Angus Shaw in Harare, Zimbabwe.