Leaders from 10 southern African nations open their annual summit Sunday to grapple with the AIDS pandemic and the crippling poverty that ravages much of the region.
The 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) is also due to push forward plans to streamline internal structures and to replace Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as head of the strategic defense and security body.
Mugabe, who had held an open-ended tenure as head of the body, used his position to invoke SADC's name for his military intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), irking then-SADC chief Nelson Mandela who had called for negotiations.
The wars in the DRC and Angola, as well as Mugabe's own political troubles at home, are also likely to figure in discussions at the summit, which ends Tuesday.
But presidents Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola and Joseph Kabila of the DRC were not expected at the summit, Malawian officials said, casting doubt on whether the participants will have meaningful discussions on the wars.
Leaders from the Indian Ocean island nations of Mauritius and Seychelles also were not expected to attend, the officials said.
Ministers wrapped up their pre-summit meeting Saturday, but said little about their talks.
Officials said discussions on Mugabe's political crisis at home did not figure on the agenda, but South African President Thabo Mbeki is under pressure to try to pull the Zimbabwean leader out of international isolation over his land reforms and his crackdown on the opposition.
Of all the region's issues, AIDS is the most pressing one to be addressed here.
With only five percent of the world's population, southern Africa has suffered 50 percent of the world's HIV infections and 60 percent of the world's AIDS deaths, Malawian Vice President Justin Malewezi told the opening of the ministerial meeting ahead of the summit.
In Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Lesotho, about one in four adults is infected; in South Africa, Zambia and Namibia, about one in five; in Malawi, one in six.
"Productivity has gone down and the burden of dependence is getting bigger. The fabric of society is dislocated and fragmented. AIDS is no longer a health issue alone, but a development issue," SADC executive secretary Prega Ramsamy told a news conference Monday.
AIDS compounds the longstanding problem of poverty in the region, which has a combined gross domestic product of 180 billion dollars, for a population of nearly 200 million.
SADC groups Angola, Botswana, the DRC, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, the Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe -- BLANTYRE (AFP)
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