Image: Morgan Tsvangirai
Jerome Delay  /  AP
Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, leaves Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo International Airport to return to Zimbabwe, on Saturday. Tsvangirai is back in Zimbabwe saying he feels safe despite fears of a possible assassination attempt.
updated 5/24/2008 8:25:59 AM ET 2008-05-24T12:25:59

Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai returned to his homeland Saturday, six weeks after leaving to warn the world his supporters faced an onslaught of state-sponsored violence.

Tsvangirai, who faces a June 27 presidential runoff against the increasingly autocratic President Robert Mugabe, arrived at the capital's main airport with little fanfare and then sped off in a three-car convoy.

Police had been manning roadblocks on the route from Harare to the airport, but they did not intervene as Tsvangirai left the terminal after flying in from South Africa.

Officials of his Movement for Democratic Change said he would first be briefed by other party leaders and was scheduled to address reporters in the afternoon.

'I feel quite safe'
"I feel quite safe," Tsvangirai told The Associated Press on the way to the Johannesburg, South Africa airport hours earlier. He had called off a return flight a week before, after his party said he was the target of a military assassination plot. Tsvangirai has survived at least three assassination attempts.

Tsvangirai won the March 29 first round of voting against Mugabe and two other candidates, but not, according to official results, by the simple majority needed to avoid a second round against the longtime president.

Independent human rights groups say opposition supporters have been targeted in a campaign of violence aimed at ensuring the 84-year-old Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, wins the second round. The violence poses serious questions about whether the runoff can be free and fair.

On his way to the Johannesburg airport Saturday, Tsvangirai said farewell to his family with a quick: "OK. Cheers," on the front porch of his northern Johannesburg home. One of his twin daughters took pictures with her cell phone. Tsvangirai said it was not clear when his wife and six children would join him in Zimbabwe.

Among the assassination attempts Tsvangirai, 56, has survived was one in 1997 by unidentified assailants who tried to throw him from a 10th floor office window. Last year, he was hospitalized after a brutal assault by police at a prayer rally, and images seen around the world of his bruised and swollen face have come to symbolize the plight of dissenters in Zimbabwe.

Tsvangirai said he left Zimbabwe April 8 to present regional leaders with information that Mugabe's military planned attacks on the opposition. He said then he expected to be away only a few weeks but instead embarked on an international tour designed to rally support for democracy in Zimbabwe.

"I'm sure that we have managed to ensure an African consensus about the crisis in Zimbabwe," he said, adding it was now time to turn his attention to rallying his supporters in Zimbabwe.

Activists killed?
Tsvangirai's party says more than 30 of its supporters and activists have been killed since the first round of voting, and attacks are increasingly targeting its top leaders.

Tsvangirai claims he won the first round outright, and that official results released May 2 showing a runoff was necessary were fraudulent. Asked whether he thought Mugabe would be any more likely to step down in June than he was in March, Tsvangirai said the runoff result would be "definitive."

Tsvangirai said Mugabe should be remembered for fighting "oppression of the blacks.

"The problem is having fought a good struggle and having succeeded, one is disappointed that he has gone on to betray those very same ideals."

Mugabe was hailed at independence for encouraging racial reconciliation and providing educational and economic opportunities for the black majority. But he was later of accused of holding onto power through fraud, violence and intimidation. Zimbabwe's economic decline has been blamed on the collapse of the key agriculture sector following the seizures, often violent, of farmland from whites. Mugabe claimed the seizures begun in 2002 were to benefit poor blacks, but many of the farms went to his loyalists.

Difficult task ahead
Tsvangirai was looking ahead to what he said would be a difficult task: healing a nation "traumatized" by political violence. He said he was inspired by Mugabe's independence era racial reconciliation campaign, but the challenge now was greater.

"It was easier when it was black and white," Tsvangirai said. "But your own brother against your own brother, torturing, killing. It's brother against brother, it's black against black. (The division is) going to be bitter, it's going to be deep, it's going to be lasting."

He said Zimbabwe would have to embark on something similar to South Africa's truth and reconciliation process, under which human rights violators of the apartheid era were offered amnesty if they made a full accounting of their crimes and asked for forgiveness. Tsvangirai said he did not want a trial of Mugabe, saying that would distract Zimbabweans from building a future.

Tsvangirai called on Zimbabweans who have fled their country's political and economic collapse to return. By conservative estimates, 4 million Zimbabweans are abroad, most in South Africa.

"There's a serious political challenge back home that needs everyone," he said. "It's no longer just the responsibility of the MDC to push out Mugabe. It's all of us."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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