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Zimbabwe opposition leader agrees to runoff

Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) announces that the MDC will participate in a presidential runoff election, during a press conference in Pretoria, South Africa
Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai greets supporters as he leaves a press conference in Pretoria, South Africa, on Saturday. Tsvangirai announced that his party will participate in a presidential runoff election and that he will return to his country in the next two days.Jon Hrusa / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Zimbabwe's top opposition leader said Saturday he will take part in a presidential runoff and will soon return to his homeland.

Morgan Tsvangirai, addressing reporters in the South African capital, said his supporters would feel "betrayed" if he did not face Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in the runoff.

"I am ready and the people are ready for the final round," he said.

"I intend to return within the shortest period of time. I shall return to Zimbabwe to begin a victory tour," he said. No date has been set but aides said Tsvangirai would return in the next two days.

Tsvangirai maintains he won the first round outright and that official figures showing a second round was necessary were fraudulent.

Questions of fairness
Opposition officials and independent human rights activist have accused Mugabe of orchestrating violence against the opposition since the first round on March 29. The violence, and the need to try to rally support, have kept Tsvangirai and other top opposition figures out of Zimbabwe since the first round.

Observers inside and outside Zimbabwe have questioned whether a second round could be free and fair with the opposition unable to campaign freely because of attacks and threats. Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF, meanwhile, has already launched its runoff campaign.

Tapiwa Mudiwa, a 26-year-old supporter of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, was skeptical Saturday.

"How are we going to campaign in the runoff as MDC supporters?" Mudiwa said in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. "We can't wear MDC T-shirts. We fear we can't even go for rallies. Cars are being burned."

In Pretoria, South Africa, Tsvangirai acknowledged the risks, but said his consultations with a wide range of Zimbabweans had convinced him they wanted him to run.

"They believe that we as a nation are brave enough, we are strong enough and we are angry enough to fight an election once again," he said. "A runoff election could finally knock out the dictator for good."

Date of vote uncertain
No runoff date has been set. Tsvangirai said Saturday it should be held within 21 days of the May 2 announcement of presidential results, but Zimbabwean government officials have said the electoral commission has up to a year to hold the vote.

Tsvangirai said the runoff should be held free of violence and monitored by regional peacekeepers, with unfettered access for international observers and journalists, many of whom were barred during the first round. He also said a new electoral commission should be established for the vote. These are "the optimum conditions" under which the runoff should be held.

"But on the other hand we have stated that we are going to run," he said at the news conference, which also was attended by other top officials of his party.

Tsvangirai acknowledged some in Zimbabwe may have felt he had abandoned them. There have been persistent rumors he had gone into exile, though he has maintained he was traveling only to rally international support for democracy in Zimbabwe and always planned to return.

Fisher Murambatsvina, a 28-year-old MDC activist, said it was risky for Tsvangirai to return.

Tsvangirai, a former trade union leader, has survived three assassination attempts, including a 1997 attempt by unidentified assailants to throw him from a 10th floor 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 challenge dissenters face in his homeland.

"They beat him up before and this may happen again, just to break him down," Murambatsvina said Saturday in Harare. "It's risky for Morgan Tsvangirai to come back. The army is in charge. Right now, I don't think he will be safe if he is coming to start his campaign."

Accusations of fraud, rigging
Mugabe, 84, has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 and once was hailed for promoting racial reconciliation and bringing education and health care to the black majority. But in recent years he has been accused of holding onto power through elections that independent observers say were marred by fraud, intimidation and rigging, and of overseeing his country's economic collapse.

"Mugabe was once my hero, too," Tsvangirai said Saturday. "It is very, very sad for me to call Mugabe a former liberator. It is sad for me to say that he has turned his back on both his people and his continent."

Meanwhile, a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer and the editor of an independent newspaper who were arrested earlier this week have been released, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Saturday.

Harrison Nkomo and Davison Maruziva, editor of the Standard newspaper, were released on Friday, the New York-based organization said.

Maruziva was arrested Thursday and charged with publishing "false statements prejudicial to the state" and contempt of court.

Nkomo was arrested Wednesday and faces charges of "undermining the authority of or insulting the president," the organization said.