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Tsvangirai seeks refuge at Dutch Embassy

Zimbabwe's opposition leader took refuge in the Dutch Embassy after pulling out of the presidential runoff, and dozens of his supporters were hustled away by police in a raid on party headquarters Monday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Zimbabwe's opposition leader took refuge in the Dutch Embassy after pulling out of the presidential runoff, and dozens of his supporters were hustled away by police in a raid on party headquarters Monday.

Western powers outraged at the turmoil began pushing Monday for the U.N. Security Council to condemn the violence and insist on a fair presidential election. They expected opposition from Zimbabwe's two biggest trading partners, South Africa and China.

A tense debate gripped the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S. and European nations pushed a toughly worded draft statement condemning a "campaign of violence and the restrictions on the political opposition" that have made it "impossible for a free and fair election to take place" on Friday.

"There has been too much violence, too much intimidation," Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told a brief news conference, and a runoff "would only deepen divisions within the country and produce a result that cannot be credible."

Friday election to take place
Despite the international condemnation, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe pledged to press ahead with Friday's vote.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai returned to Zimbabwe a month ago to campaign, despite warnings by his Movement for Democratic Change party that he was the target of a state-sponsored assassination plot.

Since then, his top deputy has been arrested on treason charges — which carry the death penalty — and Tsvangirai has repeatedly been detained by police. His supporters have faced such violence that the opposition leader said Sunday he could not run.

Dutch officials said Monday that Tsvangirai sought shelter in their embassy in Harare following his announcement Sunday that he was withdrawing from the runoff, but said he did not ask for political asylum.

Tsvangirai "asked if the Dutch Embassy could provide him with refuge because he was feeling unsafe," Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Even before Tsvangirai's actions, some African leaders had begun to offer uncharacteristic criticism of Mugabe, an 84-year-old liberation hero whose defiant anti-Western rhetoric long resonated in a region with a bitter colonial past. Tsvangirai's decision to pull out of the runoff and take refuge in a Western embassy may have been aimed at forcing his African neighbors to take a strong stand.

At a news conference in Harare late Monday, Zimbabwe's police commissioner, Augustin Chihuri, said neither Tsvangirai nor his party had reported any threats, and police were not seeking the politician.

"Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai is under no threat at all from Zimbabweans and he should cast away these delusions," Chihuri said.

Condemnation of Mugabe
Condemnation of Mugabe poured in from the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

"In forsaking the most basic tenet of governance, the protection of its people, the government of Zimbabwe must be held accountable by the international community," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement.

"Clearly, a government that emerges out of elections in which the opposition can't even participate could not be considered free and fair or legitimate," she said.

Tsvangirai won the first round of the presidential election on March 29, but did not gain an outright majority against Mugabe. That campaign was generally peaceful, but the runoff has been overshadowed by violence and intimidation, especially in rural areas.

Independent human rights groups say 85 people have died and tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes, most of them opposition supporters.

In Harare, David Coltart, a prominent opposition party member, said that not only had Tsvangirai sought refuge at the Dutch Embassy, but other top leaders had also gone underground.

"Virtually the entire leadership is hiding in Harare," Coltart said.

Mugabe's government insisted Friday's vote would go ahead — with Tsvangirai's name on the ballot. The intent appeared to be to humiliate the opposition.

Little concern for world opinion
The prospect of such an election drew strong criticism from the international community. But Zimbabwe's increasingly autocratic ruler showed little concern for the world's opinion — his police entered opposition headquarters Monday even as foreign election observers watched.

Movement for Democratic Change spokesman Nelson Chamisa said most of those taken away were women and children seeking refuge after fleeing state-sponsored political violence. He said police also seized computers and furniture.

Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said 39 people were taken into custody as part of an investigation into political violence. He said they were taken to what he called a "rehabilitation center" for interviews.

In announcing his withdrawal from the runoff, Tsvangirai said such harassment and violence against his supporters had made the balloting impossible.

Word of Tsvangirai's withdrawal spread in Zimbabwe by text message and word of mouth. Some supporters said they felt abandoned, but others said Tsvangirai had no choice given the violence.

Militant groups roamed the capital Monday and cars and buses displayed Mugabe posters and fliers. One motorist said he hung a Mugabe party bandanna on his car mirror in hopes it would protect him from attacks.

Roy Bennett, treasurer of Tsvangirai's party, speaking to The Associated Press in Johannesburg, called on the Southern African Development Community and the African Union to launch negotiations aimed at bringing members of the opposition and moderate members of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party together in a transitional authority that would create conditions for free and fair presidential voting.

He said Mugabe would not be welcome on the transitional authority or in a future government.

The issue of Mugabe's role is believed to have derailed previous attempts to resolve Mugabe's crisis by creating a coalition government. But Bennett said ZANU-PF would have to yield now in the face of growing international pressure.

South African President Thabo Mbeki has been mediating between Mugabe and Tsvangirai for more than a year under Southern African Development Community auspices. Bennett, though, appeared to be calling for a new initiative. The opposition has said Mbeki should step down, accusing him of bias in Mugabe's favor.

Mbeki spokesman Mukoni Ratshitanga said a South African negotiating team was in Zimbabwe on Monday. But Bennett said negotiations could not open until state-sponsored violence ended and Tendai Biti, the party's secretary-general, who has been jailed on treason charges since June 12, was released.

Mbeki has refused to criticize Mugabe, saying confronting him could close the door to talks. But other African leaders have shown increasing unease, and South Africa was under pressure to speak out.