Johannesburg: Southern African leaders pressured Zimbabwe to make democratic reforms before holding elections, but shied away from rebuking President Robert Mugabe for his bid to rush a new vote.
Leaders from the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) called on Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai to speed up implementation of the power-sharing deal that brought them together in an uneasy coalition government in 2009.
But the leaders stopped short of the unusually harsh language used in March by the regional bloc`s security "Troika", which called for an end to political violence and insisted that promised reforms be carried out.
That meeting, whose final statement strongly echoed Tsvangirai`s complaints against Mugabe, was seen as a rebuke to the 87-year-old President, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980.
But leaders took a softer tone at Sunday`s summit of the full SADC in Johannesburg, saying only that they "noted" the security body`s decisions.
They did however urge both Mugabe and Tsvangirai to speed up implementation of the so-called Global Political Agreement (GPA).
"Summit encouraged the parties to the GPA to move faster in the implementation of the GPA and create a conducive environment to the holding of elections that will be free and fair, under conditions of a level political field," said a statement issued at the close of the meeting.
The leaders also said they had "committed to continue dialogue with the Western powers on the removal of sanctions against Zimbabwe".
Mugabe often rails against a travel ban and asset freeze imposed on him and his inner circle by the European Union and the United States in protest at controversial elections and alleged human rights abuses by his government.
The power-sharing government formed after failed elections in 2008 had been meant to end a spiral of deadly unrest and economic collapse by overseeing the drafting of a new Constitution and organising fresh polls.
But the process is running a year behind schedule and Mugabe has been pushing to hold elections this year with or without the new Constitution.
While the summit had been expected to agree a roadmap to lay out a new timetable for the Constitution and elections, leaders pushed that decision back to their next summit in August.
SADC executive secretary Tomaz Salomao told journalists the roadmap was still at the draft stage.
"It has to be finalised among (the parties to the power-sharing deal). We hope that when we meet in August in Luanda this document is concluded," he said after the meeting.
Zimbabwe`s neighbours have been accused of handling Mugabe with kid gloves, and the SADC security body`s pointed statement in March drew a fierce reaction from him and his party.
But the SADC stood firm in its commitment to the power-sharing plan on Sunday, saying it still insisted on "the full implementation of the GPA".
The deal has seen Zimbabwe`s economy rebound from record-setting hyperinflation, but has not ended reports of political abuses.
Amnesty International has accused Zimbabwe`s security forces, which remain firmly in Mugabe`s grip, of complicity in a wave of violence against supporters of Tsvangirai`s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) this year.
The MDC has also voiced alarm over the recent tendency of military leaders to wade into politics.
Tsvangirai wants SADC to endorse polls for no earlier than 2012.
Election officials say the shambolic voters roll -- an estimated one-third of the people on it are dead -- will never be ready this year. The Finance Ministry also says it has no money for elections.