Zimbabwe's opposition leader seeks refuge after police raid

McClatchy NewspapersJune 23, 2008 

NAIROBI, Kenya — Police controlled by President Robert Mugabe raided the headquarters of Zimbabwe's political opposition Monday, a day after opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from this week's runoff election against Mugabe because of mounting violence against his supporters.

Amid an international furor over Mugabe's strongman tactics, heavily armed police arrested about 60 opposition supporters at the headquarters in the capital, Harare, said Fortune Gwaze, the policy coordinator for Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change.

Those arrested were among 1,000 party activists from rural areas who were using the offices as a temporary refuge from weeks of state-sponsored violence that's killed more than 85 opposition supporters, Gwaze said.

The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that Tsvangirai sought shelter in the Dutch embassy in Harare shortly after the police raid. It quoted a Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying that the charismatic former trade-union official "feared for his safety but had not requested asylum."

The raid was a clear sign that Mugabe, whose 28-year rule over the southern African nation has become increasingly authoritarian and violent, was continuing what diplomats and human rights groups describe as a systematic campaign of terror against Zimbabwe's popular opposition. Opposition officials say that more than 10,000 people have been injured and 200,000 forced to flee their homes as ruling party militias rampaged through the country.

On Sunday, Tsvangirai withdrew from the runoff, scheduled for Friday, saying that he couldn't ask his supporters to go to the polls "when that vote could cost them their lives." The decision has unleashed worldwide criticism of Mugabe, who appears determined to claim what one ruling party official called "a resounding victory" in the one-man runoff.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement that the United States "condemns in the strongest terms the government of Zimbabwe's continuing campaign of violence against its own people."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown denounced the "criminal cabal" that's running Mugabe's "increasingly desperate and isolated regime." Britain and France were expected to join the United States in seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the violence.

Some African leaders have called for the runoff to be postponed, a notion that Zimbabwe's elections board — packed with Mugabe allies — has rejected.

The crisis is a major test for African leaders, primarily those of the 14-nation regional bloc, the Southern African Development Community, some of whom have coddled Mugabe in the past because of his role in liberating Zimbabwe from white rule. While leaders in Tanzania, Zambia and Angola have spoken out against Mugabe, officials in South Africa, the regional power, have urged a wait-and-see approach.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who mediated a political settlement to Kenya's bloody post-election crisis in February, called on the Security Council and the African Union to mediate a solution.

"Any runoff or announcement of a winner under these circumstances will neither be credible nor acceptable to Zimbabweans, Africa and the international community," Annan said. "The victor emerging from such a flawed process will have no legitimacy to govern Zimbabwe."

Earlier Monday, Tsvangirai told a South African radio station that he was "prepared to negotiate" a political settlement with the ruling party, but only if violence against civilians ceased.

The remarks seemed to suggest that Tsvangirai might reconsider his withdrawal, but party officials said he wouldn't contest the election to take place Friday.

"We are not going to win the election. There is no election," party organizing secretary Elias Mudzuri said, sounding weary. "Mugabe wants to elect himself; let himself be elected. We are just trying to evade and survive."

Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in a first-round vote in March, 48 percent to 43 percent, according to the government's count, but he didn't win the absolute majority required to avoid a runoff. Police detained Tsvangirai repeatedly in recent weeks and jailed his party's No. 2, Tendai Biti, on treason charges, which carry a possible death sentence.

On Sunday, the opposition's national youth chairman, Thamsanqa Mahlangu, was badly beaten with machetes as he tried to attend an opposition rally that was blocked by ruling-party militias, opposition officials said. Mahlangu suffered severe skull injuries and is in intensive care in a Harare hospital, they said.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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