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Mugabe: I’m ‘open’ to talks with opposition

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said Thursday that he is “open to discussion” with the opposition, which is boycotting Friday’s runoff vote.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, center, and his wife, Grace, right, greet supporters on their arrival at an election rally on Wednesday. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said Thursday that he is “open to discussion” with the opposition, which is boycotting Friday’s runoff vote.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai called Wednesday for talks on forming a transitional authority. Mugabe had until Thursday shown little interest in talks, instead focusing on the election.

Tsvangirai, who had been the only candidate facing Mugabe, announced Sunday he was withdrawing because of state-sponsored violence.

World leaders have dismissed the runoff as a sham, but electoral officials say the election will go ahead with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's name on the ballot. Tsvangirai predicted that people could be forced to go to polling stations.

"There could be a massive turnout not because of the will of the people, but because of the role of the military and the role of traditionally people being forced to the polls," Tsvangirai said in a Thursday interview with British Broadcasting Corp.

Strong reaction to Mandela's criticism
Anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, who criticized Zimbabwe's leadership Wednesday, spent 27 years in a jail before becoming South Africa's first democratically elected president.

On Thursday, both the government and the opposition reacted strongly to Mandela's criticism, with Mugabe's spokesman dismissing the comments and Tsvangirai reverently welcoming them.

Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said Mandela was only bowing to Western pressure when he spoke of Zimbabwe's "tragic failure of leadership" at a London fundraiser. Keenly aware of Mandela's status as anti-apartheid icon, Ndlovu condemned the West for pressuring African leaders, not Mandela.

Mandela rarely differs publicly with South African President Thabo Mbeki, but many Africans have questioned Mbeki's unwillingness to criticize Mugabe, his neighbor.

"We appreciate the solidarity from Nelson Mandela," Tsvangirai said. "It is something we cherish."

'Appreciate the solidarity'
Although out of office for nearly a decade, Mandela remains a commanding and respected figure. He uses his influence sparingly, and it is particularly rare for him to publicly differ with South Africa’s current president, Thabo Mbeki. South Africans and other Africans have been increasingly questioning Mbeki’s unwillingness to publicly criticize Mugabe, so Mandela’s brief but sharp comments will have particular resonance.

“We appreciate the solidarity from Nelson Mandela,” Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, said, adding “it is something we cherish.”

Tsvangirai was speaking by phone to Britain’s Sky News Thursday from the Dutch Embassy in Zimbabwe’s capital, where he has sought shelter amid mounting political violence blamed primarily on Mugabe’s government.

Meanwhile, scores of Zimbabwean opposition supporters were seeking refuge from political violence at South Africa’s embassy in Harare for a second day Thursday

At midmorning, people could be seen sitting in the sun or sleeping in the embassy parking lot. At least one road block obstructed the street leading up to the embassy’s main entrance, and riot police were on a highway nearby.

Ronnie Mamoepa, a spokesman for the South African Foreign Ministry, put the number of people at the embassy Thursday at about 180. He said the ambassador was working with aid groups and Zimbabwean officials to find sanctuary for the group, among them women and children. Mamoepa says officials are also working on finding blankets, food and other supplies.

Also Thursday, Tsvangirai was quoted as saying negotiations won’t be possible if Mugabe goes ahead with a runoff election the world has denounced as a sham.

“Negotiations will be over if Mr. Mugabe declares himself the winner and considers himself the president. How can we negotiate?” Tsvangirai said in an interview with British newspaper The Times.

On Wednesday, Tsvangirai emerged briefly from the embassy to hold a news conference during which he urged African leaders to guide negotiations aimed at forming a coalition transitional authority in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwean officials scoffed at Tsvangirai’s call for talks and said they were focused on Friday’s presidential runoff.

Tsvangirai, who had been the only candidate facing Mugabe in the runoff, announced Sunday he was withdrawing because state-sponsored violence against his Movement for Democratic Change had made it impossible to run. Electoral officials say the election will go ahead with Tsvangirai’s name on the ballot.

Opposition leader says he didn't write op-ed
Tsvangirai late Wednesday issued a statement saying he did not write a commentary that appeared under his name calling for United Nations peacekeepers in his country. The essay appeared in Wednesday’s edition of the British newspaper The Guardian. Tsvangirai said The Guardian was assured by “credible sources” that he had approved the article, but that he had not.

A Tsvangirai aide, George Sibotshiwe, said Thursday his party was trying to determine how the commentary was given to The Guardian under Tsvangirai’s name.

The Guardian, which published Tsvangirai’s statement that the essay was not his on Thursday, said it had had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the initial piece, which it said was supplied by a contact who had represented Tsvangirai in the past.

Tsvangirai had been asked about the essay several times earlier Wednesday and did not disavow it then, though he did stress that a call for peacekeepers was not a call for military intervention, a sensitive issue.

The Herald, a Zimbabwean government mouthpiece, on Thursday accused Tsvangirai of calling “for military intervention in Zimbabwe disguised as peacekeepers.”

'We still need peacekeepers'
Sibotshiwe, the spokesman, said Tsvangirai did not equate peacekeepers with military intervention.

“We still need peacekeepers,” Sibotshiwe said.

Also Thursday, The Herald reported that Mugabe had urged crowds north of Harare to “vote for the ruling party to show the world their resolve to defend the country’s sovereignty and independence.”

Mugabe has become increasing defiant in the face of international condemnation he dismisses as Western attempts to meddle in Africa. But Africans themselves are increasingly speaking out against Mugabe.

On Wednesday, the leaders of Swaziland and Tanzania — meeting as a committee of the main regional bloc, the South African Development Community — urged Zimbabwe to postpone the runoff, saying violence and restrictions on the opposition had not created the conditions for a free and fair vote Friday.

The Herald, the Zimbabwean government mouthpiece, quoted officials here Thursday as saying the call for postponement was illegitimate.

Opposition No. 2 released
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s opposition said its No. 2 leader was granted bail Thursday.

Tendai Biti, secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change, had been jailed since flying back to Zimbabwe from South Africa June 12. He was charged with treason, which carries the death penalty, as well as with publishing false statements, insulting the president and another charge related to interfering with the military.

Biti’s lawyer Lewis Uriri said in addition to bail set at 1 trillion Zimbabwean dollars, or about $100, Biti was required to surrender his passport and the title to his home and report to police twice a week. Uriri said Biti paid his bail shortly after Thursday’s hearing, and was awaiting the completion of paperwork required for his release.