"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," he said.

 

'New approach'

 

Mugabe is regarded by many leaders in the region as a liberation hero but he has been condemned in the West for a violent crackdown on opposition supporters and for an economic crisis.

 

"We believe that the crisis has reached a point where Zimbabweans need to be strongly persuaded and directly assisted to find an urgent solution to the crisis that affects the entire region"

SADC council of non-governmental organisations statement

"Zambia has so far been an advocate of quiet diplomacy and continues to believe in it. But the twist of events in the troubled country necessitates the adoption of a new approach," Mwanawasa said.

 

"The ministers of foreign affairs will in the next few days meet over this matter," Mwanawasa was quoted as saying by Zambian government newspapers.

 

He said regional leaders would soon convene to discuss the situation, although there has been no official announcement of such a meeting.

 

Members of SADC's peace and security organisation are due to meet in Dar es Salaam on Monday and Tuesday, with Tanzania, Namibia and Lesotho named as a troika to lead the bloc's relations with Zimbabwe.

 

The SADC council of non-governmental organisations also said it was time for the group to act.

 

"We believe that the crisis has reached a point where Zimbabweans need to be strongly persuaded and directly assisted to find an urgent solution to the crisis that affects the entire region," the council said in a statement.

 

Pressure

 

South Africa has said it is concerned about "deteriorating" conditions in Zimbabwe but says Zimbabweans must find their own solutions to their problems.

 

Western countries have said they will maintain pressure on Mugabe despite his threats to expel their diplomats if they continue to criticise his government.

 

Mugabe's Zanu PF party was criticised by Western powers after police arrested scores of opposition leaders for trying to take part in a banned prayer rally last week.

 

Morgan Tsavangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was hospitalised with serious head injuries after being beaten in custody and other opposition activists said they received violent treatment from the police.

 

Britain and the US have called for more sanctions against Mugabe's government, which is battling its worst economic crisis in decades.

 

Inflation stands at more than 1,700 per cent, unemployment at 80 per cent and there are shortages of food, fuel and foreign exchange.

 

Mugabe says he is being punished by the West for his policy of seizing white-owned farms to give to landless blacks.