msnbc.com news services
updated 6/18/2008 5:52:57 PM ET 2008-06-18T21:52:57

South African President Thabo Mbeki made a hastily arranged visit to meet with Zimbabwe's president and the opposition leader on Wednesday amid international concern about mounting political violence and an escalating humanitarian crisis.

Less than two weeks before a presidential election runoff that most observers fear will be neither free nor fair, Mbeki met with Zimbabwe's longtime President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

The meeting between Mbeki, the designated mediator on Zimbabwe, and Mugabe continued late into the evening. There was no word on whether progress had been made.

Mbeki has refused to criticize Mugabe
Mbeki has steadfastly refused to criticize Mugabe in public, saying confrontation could backfire. But his decision to spend his 66th birthday with the 84 year-old Zimbabwean autocrat underlined the immense pressure he is under at home and abroad to take a tougher stance.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice demanded action.

"It is time for leaders of Africa to say to President Mugabe that the people of Zimbabwe deserve a free and fair election," she said after a meeting in Washington with Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga — one of the few African leaders who has criticized Mugabe.

"You cannot intimidate opponents, you cannot put opponents in jail, you cannot threaten them with jail on charges of treason and expect to be respected in the international community," Rice said.

Odinga urged world leaders to pressure Mugabe to step down, and called the runoff a "complete sham." Botswana last week also protested to Zimbabwe — a sign that African solidarity with Mugabe is fading.

Tsvangirai also held talks with a top U.N. envoy and appealed to him to "send a clear message to the Mugabe regime to immediately stop the arrest, harassment and violence against innocent Zimbabweans."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed “profound alarm” Wednesday at the situation, saying violence, intimidation and arrest of opposition leaders could not lead to credible elections.

“Should these conditions continue to prevail, the legitimacy of the election outcomes would be in question,” Ban told an informal session of the General Assembly.

Opposition complains of mistreatment
Zimbabwean opposition No. 2, Tendai Biti, was brought to court in leg irons on charges of treason and other counts. Opposition lawyer Lewis Uriri said the hearing was postponed until Thursday because lack of electricity meant recording equipment did not work — a symptom of Zimbabwe's economic meltdown that has led to chronic shortages of most basic supplies and dizzying inflation.

Biti's alleged offenses include his announcement that Tsvangirai won the first round of presidential voting March 29 ahead of the official results. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change claims the opposition leader won outright, but official results said a runoff was needed because there was no outright majority win.

Most observers have praised the conduct of the first round — although not the delay in releasing official results. But there are growing fears that Mugabe will steal the runoff through violence and ballot rigging.

Tsvangirai's party said he complained to U.N. envoy Haile Menkerios about the banning of opposition rallies, lack of access to state media and the arrest and harassment of its leaders and members. The party claims that at least 60 of its supporters have died in political violence and thousands have been displaced.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent Menkerios, who met with Mugabe on Tuesday, "for discussions on the political situation and the upcoming elections." Ban has expressed concern about violence in Zimbabwe and spoken of the need to deploy neutral international election observers.

Zimbabwe's official Herald newspaper played down Menkerios' visit, saying Wednesday it was part of a tour of the region.

In an editorial, the newspaper added it expected Britain and the United States, long among Mugabe's sharpest critics, to brief Ban's envoy.

"The two powers are now banking on Mr. Menkerios to deliver a verdict that will boost their regime change agenda," the editorial said. "It is against this background Zimbabweans will not receive the U.N. official with open arms."

Ban on aid groups partially lifted

Mugabe's government recently ordered humanitarian groups to suspend work in the country, accusing them of helping his opponents. Several aid groups said Wednesday the government ban on their work had been partially lifted last week, but they remained wary.

Fambai Ngirande, from the National Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, said the group was told last Friday that work to help HIV and AIDS victims could resume. Ngirande said that despite the easing of the ban, it is still "very dangerous" to provide aid in rural areas.

A U.N. official who works in the office of U.N. Human Rights Chief Louise Arbour went to the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, on Sunday to meet with U.N. workers and help aid groups there.

Arbour says the official was expelled Tuesday — the same day a U.N. special envoy, Haile Menkerios, met with Mugabe. She did not give a reason for the expulsion or identify the official.

A spokesman for Arbour said that once the U.N. human rights official was in the country, Zimbabwean authorities told him they had received insufficient notice of his visit. But the High Commissioner’s office had followed usual procedures to inform the authorities of the mission well in advance, spokesman Rupert Colville said.

“Unfortunately it seems to fit in a pattern of the government taking a very uncooperative attitude” toward many international humanitarian staff, Arbour said.

The 14-nation southern African regional bloc has said it will send 400 election observers, but many fear that will not be enough. Zimbabwe's official media said Wednesday that local Zimbabwean "observers" would be screened before being allowed to monitor the elections.

There were reports following the first round of reprisals against local monitors the government deemed as being anti-Mugabe.

Mbeki has remained tightlipped since the first round of voting. Tsvangirai has called on the South African leader to step down as mediator, accusing him of bias toward Mugabe. Movement for Democratic Change spokesman George Sibotshiwe described the meeting between the two men as "private." But ahead of the talks it said it expected little from the visit.

In a speech before parliament last week, Mbeki said his priority was to help Zimbabwe find answers through dialogue and negotiation rather than imposing a solution from abroad.

Jacob Zuma, head of Mbeki's African National Congress, was quoted by South African media Wednesday as saying the runoff was unlikely to be free and fair.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and Reuters.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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