In a move hailed as the first step towards solving Zimbabwe's deepening crisis, President Robert Mugabe came under concerted pressure from three African leaders to begin negotiations with the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Bakili Muluzi of Malawi met Mugabe for two hours on Monday to encourage his ruling Zanu-PF party to hold talks with the MDC.
After meeting Mugabe, the leaders met MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai for 90 minutes.
The inter-party negotiations would be to establish a transition to fresh elections in which Mugabe would retire, an interim government including both parties would be installed to pave the way for new free and fair elections according to international standards, say African diplomats close to the talks.
However Mugabe has not welcomed the pressure from his fellow African leaders. The state-owned Sunday Mail newspaper questioned whether the presidents were coming "as African brothers or as agents of the British government."
After meeting Tsvangirai, presidents Obasanjo and Muluzi held another session with Mugabe. Mbeki did not attend the second meeting with Mugabe because he had flown to Kinshasa to work on the peace process in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Following his second round with Mugabe, the Nigerian president said: "There is a sticking point," a reference to Mugabe's demand that the MDC drop its court case challenging the legality of his election last year.
Tsvangirai has stated that the MDC is not willing to abandon its legal challenge to Mugabe's re-election. The court case, alleging widespread state-sponsored violence and massive vote rigging, is the opposition party's only legal recourse.
Tsvangirai has put forward his own conditions to the inter-party talks. He said that all state-sponsored violence and torture against MDC supporters must stop and that the repressive Public Order and Security Act and the anti-press laws must be repealed.
John Makumbe, chairman of the Zimbabwe in Crisis Coalition, was cautious.
"I believe Mugabe has a few more tricks left up his sleeve," he said. "The process has begun but I fear there will be a few more explosions and some more blood spilled before Mugabe actually steps down."
The visiting leaders were welcomed by about 300 female MDC supporters who gathered in the center of the capital, Harare.
Jubilantly singing and dancing, they waved placards saying: "Please advise Mugabe to step down," "Tell Mugabe to go now" and "Women are being tortured."
Armed police charged the crowd and dragged away about 10 women, including some with babies. But the action did not dampen the women's spirits.
"They can arrest us, but they cannot stop us," said one woman after fleeing police. "We want democracy."