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Zambia: Zimbabwe 'sinking Titanic'

Story Highlights

• Zambian president urges southern Africa to take new approach to Zimbabwe
• Growing number in Zimbabwe fleeing economic and political turmoil
• West vows sanctions on Mugabe government over crackdown on opposition
• Inflation is 1,700 percent, food and fuel shortages and 80 percent jobless rate
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(CNN) -- The president of Zambia has called for other southern African countries to take a different approach to Zimbabwe, which he described as a "sinking Titanic" as growing numbers of refugees flee economic and political turmoil.

Levy Mwanawasa's comments on Wednesday were reported by Reuters to be the one of the strongest African comments on the mounting crisis in neighboring Zimbabwe.

Mwanawasa said the Southern African Development Community (SADC) had achieved little in negotiations with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

"Quiet diplomacy has failed to help solve the political chaos and economic meltdown in Zimbabwe," Mwanawasa said late on Monday in neighboring Namibia.

"As I speak right now, one SADC country has sunk into such economic difficulties that it may be likened to a sinking Titanic whose passengers are jumping out in a bid to save their lives."

Zambian government newspapers reported that Mwanawasa had suggested the SADC "would soon take a stand" on Zimbabwe.

The Zambian leaders's comments came as British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged African leaders on Wednesday to pressure Mugabe and said his regime was a disaster for the continent.

"It is tragic for the reputation of Africa when Zimbabwe is allowed to remain in the state that it is," Blair told parliament on Wednesday.

"Let's be very clear: the solution to Zimbabwe ultimately will not come simply through the pressure applied by Britain. That pressure has got to be applied within Africa, in particular within the African Union," Blair told legislators.

"We will continue to do all we can to make sure that Africa realises this is the responsibility of Africa as well as the Zimbabwean government."

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's government is threatening to expel Western diplomats openly siding with opposition leaders who have blamed Mugabe's government for recent brutal attacks on dissenters.

Zimbabwe's foreign minister summoned ambassadors from several countries, including the United States, that have been critical of the government and "issued a threat to foreign diplomats to remain quiet or face being declared persona non grata," a U.S. State Department spokesman said.

After the minister refused to allow the diplomats to respond, U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell walked out of Monday's meeting in Harare.

Dell told CNN on Tuesday that he refused "to serve as a mere stage prop for the foreign minister's press conference."

He spoke from Johannesburg, South Africa, where he had gone on a previously scheduled trip. He said he intended to return to Harare.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told CNN that the Australian ambassador was also among those summoned.

"If President Mugabe thinks the best way to handle the diplomatic community is to expel them, then that will just consolidate the international community against the Mugabe regime," he said.

Downer, speaking from Canberra, said he believed the international community, especially neighboring countries, should be "more robust" in putting pressuure on the Mugabe regime.

Meanwhile, the State Department spokesman said: "The United States will continue to speak and act steadfastly in support of the people of Zimbabwe's right to democracy."

That position, according to Zimbabwe's ambassador to the United States, is a violation of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations.

"That convention clearly ... stipulates that a diplomatic agent cannot and should not interfere in the internal affairs of the host country," Machivenyika Mapuranga told CNN. "What the Western ambassadors have been doing in Zimbabwe is to team up with the opposition."

Opposition beaten

Concerns over Mugabe's government were reignited on March 11 when the leaders of Zimbabwe's main opposition group, Movement for Democratic Change, said they were brutally beaten and detained by Zimbabwe forces for their role in a rally.

Video showed MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai arriving at a courthouse two days after the incident with a deep gash to his head, and walking with a cane.

Tsvangirai and fellow MDC leader Arthur Mutambara said they were trying to hold a peaceful prayer meeting when they were beaten and detained. Downer said Australia was "appalled" at the beatings.

"It's completely unacceptable for the government to be beating up the opposition in this way," he told CNN.

Zimbabwe's government has repeatedly accused the opposition group of using brutal tactics. Mapuranga accused MDC "thugs" of burning buses and police stations in Zimbabwe, and blamed the Western diplomats of supporting these actions.

He also blamed Western news media, including the BBC and CNN, of biased reporting against Mugabe's government. (Transcript)

Zimbabwe's government has repeatedly rejected CNN's request to send a reporter into the country.

Last weekend, several MDC leaders and officials -- some seeking medical treatment for the wounds received in the March 11 incident -- were prevented from leaving the country by Zimbabwe forces.

MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa was attacked and beaten on Sunday near Harare International Airport, where he was scheduled to depart for a conference in Brussels, Belgium. Tsvangirai told CNN he believed Mugabe's government was behind the attack.

Dell said Mugabe's recent actions are a reflection of mounting pressure against his government amid a serious economic crisis.

"Every time (Mugabe is) in a tight corner, he tries to overcome the difficulties by lashing out at what he perceives to be his opponents," Dell said. "The degree of virulence with which he is acting now is really a reflection of just how tight a corner he's in."

Mugabe, 83, has been the country's only ruler since it achieved independence 27 years ago.

Under his rule, the once-prosperous country has suffered an economic crisis, with routine shortages of food, electricity and foreign currency.

Inflation is estimated to exceed 1,700 percent.

While there is no official figure, unemployment among Zimbabweans is estimated at 80 percent.

Those economic woes will be compounded by the effects of El Nino and "poor government planning" for the weather phenomenon, which is expected to devastate Zimbabwe's harvest, Dell said.

Elections are scheduled for March 2008, and Mugabe has indicated he intends to run again.

Tsvangirai lost his bid to unseat Mugabe in the last presidential election in 2002, which was marked by widespread allegations that Mugabe and his supporters rigged the vote.

Mapuranga said that those elections were "free and fair and reflect the will of the Zimbabwean people."

"But now, you have a situation where these people, the MDC leadership, because they have been losing these elections, are now turning to violence," the ambassador told CNN. "You heard them say that they are going to have the final push, and that they are going to overthrow Robert Mugabe. No, this is unconscionable."


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