Mugabe presses ahead with controversial election

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Despite a growing furor at home and abroad, President Robert Mugabe pressed ahead Wednesday with plans for a controversial election that would extend his 28-year grip on this devastated southern African nation.

Mugabe's rival, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who withdrew from Friday's runoff vote after militants loyal to the government killed at least 86 of his supporters, emerged from the Dutch embassy in Harare, where he had taken refuge Monday.

Tsvangirai said the election "would not be recognized" by Zimbabweans or the rest of the world because of what his party describes as a state-sponsored terror campaign against political opponents.

A special summit of the Southern African Development Community, an influential 14-nation regional bloc, issued a statement saying that holding the election on Friday, given the climate of fear in Zimbabwe, would undermine the legitimacy of the outcome.

But a Mugabe spokesman, Bright Matonga, dismissed Tsvangirai's pleas as "a stage-managed stunt." Matonga told the British Broadcasting Corp.: "People are going to vote on Friday. That is definite."

The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGee, said that Mugabe's ruling party, known as ZANU-PF, was determined to conduct "an illegitimate election" and that the country's fearsome military forces have been deployed in the countryside to target dissenters.

"We've received reports that ZANU will force people to vote on Friday and also take action against those who refuse to vote," McGee said, according to a transcript of a conference call provided by the State Department. "So they're saying we want an election at all costs."

Since Tsvangirai pulled out of the race Sunday, leaders from Africa and throughout the world have condemned Mugabe's tactics and urged him to delay the vote. The rhetoric had little effect on the 84-year-old president, who led Zimbabwe's drive for independence from white-minority rule in 1980 but has since presided over one of the most catastrophic economic declines in history. Hundreds of thousands — possibly millions — of Zimbabweans have sought refuge in other countries over the past year.

In remarks published Wednesday in The Herald newspaper, a government mouthpiece, Mugabe said that he was open to negotiations with Tsvangirai, but only after the election.

"They can shout as loud as they want from Washington and London, but our people will deliver the final verdict," Mugabe was quoted as saying at a rally in rural Banket.

Tsvangirai handed Mugabe his first presidential election defeat in March, winning 48 percent of the vote to Mugabe's 43 percent, but not the outright majority needed to avoid a runoff. Since then, domestic and international observers say that militias loyal to the ruling ZANU-PF party have fanned out across the country, murdering and mutilating opposition supporters in order to ensure a Mugabe victory.

Still, the Mugabe regime was trying to portray the runoff as a two-man race whose winner would be the duly elected president. The Herald carried a banner front-page headline blaring, "Tsvangirai can't pull out," and charging that his withdrawal was orchestrated by Britain, the former colonial power in Zimbabwe.

Emerging from temporary sanctuary at the Dutch embassy, Tsvangirai said the ruling party was behaving "arrogantly." He called for an end to state-sponsored attacks, including the unofficial roadblocks that have sprung up throughout the country where opposition party officials say civilians are being removed from their vehicles, interrogated and brutalized.

Tsvangirai also called for the members of parliament elected in March — a majority of whom come from his party and an allied splinter faction — to be seated, and for political prisoners to be released. His party's No. 2, Tendai Biti, has been jailed for nearly two weeks on treason charges, which carry a possible death sentence.

"The international community is united by its desire for the violence to end immediately and for the will of the people of Zimbabwe to prevail," Tsvangirai said.

Other opposition officials said that the violence and intimidation were intensifying on the eve of the vote. Residents of Harare say that bands of young ruling party supporters are roaming far-flung suburbs and rural villages in pickup trucks without license plates, demanding that people vote for Mugabe or face consequences after the election.

"We thought (pulling out) would stop the violence," said an opposition spokesman, Luke Tamborinyoka. "We were wrong."

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