JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Zimbabwean police called off an opposition rally in their capital Sunday, prompting accusations of political interference on the eve of a regional summit on the southern African nation's political crisis.
Opposition spokesman Nelson Chamisa said leaders of his Movement for Democratic Change had organized the rally to update members on their position headed into the talks, set to take place in South Africa on Monday.
Regional leaders were expected to press Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai to form a coalition government, as they agreed to do in September. The MDC refuses to govern with Mugabe until a fair distribution of Cabinet and other government posts is worked out and harassment of dissidents ends. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and leaders of neighboring countries have urged the opposition to form the government first, and work out differences later.
In an interview Sunday, chief opposition spokesman Tendai Biti said the banning of Sunday's rally was evidence that ZANU-PF held his party in "total contempt." Biti, in South Africa for Monday's talks, said ZANU-PF's attitude left little reason to hope the summit would produce a breakthrough.
The Mugabe government's position was laid out Sunday in an editorial in the state-owned Mail newspaper, which accused the opposition of being "intransigent."
Human rights activists say Mugabe's government has stepped up its crackdown on free speech and dissent in recent weeks.
But a police spokesman says Sunday's rally was banned because of the danger of violence among opposition factions. Chamisa, the opposition spokesman, dismissed that as "ridiculous," and said police were acting on ZANU-PF orders.
"I don't know where the excuses they are giving are coming from," Chamisa said.
Zimbabwe has been virtually without a government since a presidential election last March in which Tsvangirai won the most votes. Tsvangirai pulled out of a subsequent runoff against Mugabe because of brutal attacks on opposition supporters.
The political stalemate has distracted leaders from addressing a growing economic and humanitarian crisis, with millions of Zimbabweans dependent on international aid groups for food and medical care. The government has been unable to maintain its medical and sanitation infrastructure, leading to a cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 3,000 people and spread to neighboring countries.
Under the power-sharing deal, Tsvangirai is to take the new post of prime minister. Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, would continue as president.
The Zimbabwean Mail editorial Sunday accused the opposition of trying "to see to it that the September (unity government) accord does not see the light of day without them openly pulling out of the accord."
Biti, the chief opposition spokesman, said the opposition was prepared to compromise, but had already given up significant ground -- including accepting that Tsvangirai would not be president. He repeated opposition calls on Mugabe's fellow African leaders to deal with him more decisively.
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki has acted as mediator on behalf of the Southern African Development Community, and pursued a policy of quiet diplomacy. Mbeki argues confronting Mugabe could backfire.
Neighboring leaders have hinted they are losing patience with Mugabe, and a logical next step would be to move the discussion to a larger African forum. The African Union has a summit in Ethiopia at the beginning of February, and Zimbabwean activists are already gathering in Addis Ababa.