Regional leaders endorse Zimbabwe's disputed vote

Southern African leaders opened an annual summit Saturday endorsing the outcome of disputed elections in Zimbabwe that extended President Robert Mugabe's 33-year rule by another five years.

"Congratulations to comrade Robert Mugabe for conducting peaceful elections," said the incoming head of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), President Joyce Banda of Malawi.

"We wish to offer you continued support as a member of the family," Banda said to cheers from the audience at the start of the 15-nation summit.

A smiling Mugabe acknowledged the endorsement with his traditional clenched-fist salute.

Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC party said Friday he had withdrawn a legal challenge to the elections, claiming the courts would not be fair.

That removed the last hurdle to 89-year-old Mugabe's inauguration for a seventh term.

The SADC's observer mission for the July 31 elections judged the vote was free, but have not yet commented on its fairness.

The bloc will publish its report on Zimbabwe's polls during this weekend's summit, according to South African President Jacob Zuma.

Banda took over the rotating one-year chairmanship of the SADC from Mozambican leader Armando Guebuza, becoming the first woman to head the bloc since its inception 33 years ago.

The two-day summit is also discussing behind closed doors, the political stand-off in Madagascar and the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a Malawian official.

Madagascar has been suspended from the regional grouping since strongman Andry Rajoelina toppled Marc Ravalomanana in 2009.

The SADC has been pushing the rivals to follow through on a roadmap meant to steer the island nation toward elections, which Banda hinted could be this year.

The vote has repeatedly been delayed amid controversy over the candidacies of the three frontrunners, including Rajoelina.

But a Madagascan electoral court on Saturday struck off the revised list of candidates the names of the three high-profile candidates, who had not met some electoral rules.

News of their disqualification should be welcomed by the regional leaders who had wanted the trio to step aside.

A diplomat at the talks who asked not to be named said the way was "now clear for the holding of credible elections whose result will be accepted by SADC."

But there will be grounds for concern after Rajoelina's Communications Minister Harry Laurent Rahajason warned the three candidates' supporters would not "sit idle" over the court's decision.

In the DR Congo, the regional grouping remains concerned about a quarter-million people who have fled their homes since last year when the M23 rebel group took up arms against government troops in the mineral-rich but chronically unstable east.

Despite the trouble spots still dogging the SADC, an optimistic Banda foresees "a region that is peaceful and stable; a region that is an economic powerhouse."

But to achieve lasting peace and stability she urged a fight against poverty as well as "political tolerance and the rule of law."

"We must promote inclusive politics," said Banda.

Zimbabwe's defeated prime minister Tsvangirai had this week claimed that veteran Mugabe had attempted to talk to him after the vote in which he received 34 percent of the ballots cast against Mugabe's 61 percent.

He however said he had rejected the ouvertures which Mugabe's aides dismissed as "lies".

But the opposition Movement for Democratic Change is still hoping for a solution over the disputed election and has taken its fight to the SADC which had mediated a power-sharing deal between Mugabe and Tsvangirai four years ago.

Tsvangirai's deputy Thokozani Khupe and top party official Jameson Timba have travelled to Malawi to present the party's case to regional heads of state.

Tsvangirai claims the vote was rigged and has called for fresh elections.