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11 May 2008 15:24
Zimbabwe braced on Sunday for the return home of the country’s opposition leader, who has vowed to face veteran President Robert Mugabe in a run-off election despite the risk of further violence.
Morgan Tsvangirai, who beat Mugabe in a first round of voting in March, is expected in Harare in the next few days after leaving the country in early April amid spiralling post-election violence directed at his party.
Zimbabwean doctors, trade unions and teachers have reported beatings and intimidation by government-backed militias since the first ballot on March 29 and the authorities have rounded up a number of high-profile opponents.
Sunday brought news that 58 opposition activists in a farming town north-east of Harare had been arrested on charges of public violence, according to local police.
Tsvangirai, who is threatened by treason accusations in his homeland, will seek security assurances from the 14-member regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), before flying back, his spokesperson said.
“We cannot anticipate what the regime is going to do, but we are going back to Zimbabwe,” spokesperson George Sibotshiwe said.
Before Saturday, Tsvangirai had refused to say whether he would take part in the run-off—even though failure to do so would have handed victory to Mugabe.
He warned that his decision to take on Mugabe, who has been in power since the country’s independence from Britain in 1980, risked provoking “more violence, more gloom, more betrayal”.
He set a series of conditions for his participation in the poll, including the presence of international peacekeepers, election monitors, free media and an end to violence to ensure a fair vote.
Sibotshiwe said that the opposition had met with Angola’s president on Saturday to urge him to send regional SADC peacekeepers for the as yet unscheduled second round.
President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, believed to be close to Mugabe, is the head of the security committee of the 14-member SADC, which has the ability to deploy peacekeepers in the region.
The White House gave strong backing to the idea of election and United Nations human rights monitors in Zimbabwe for the poll, which Tsvangirai wants before May 23 in accordance with Zimbabwean law.
“If this is going to be a successful run-off, obviously that’s the first thing that has to happen: opposition leaders and their supporters must be able to freely campaign free of violence,” White House spokesperson Gordon Johndroe said on Saturday.
The ruling government was quick to dismiss the idea of outside interference in the election on Saturday and few observers believe the conditions will or could be met.
No Western monitors were allowed to oversee the first ballot and a team from the SADC was widely criticised for giving it a largely clean bill of health.
Tsvangirai also had strong criticism for Zimbabwe’s electoral commission (ZEC) and said that failure to hold the second round of voting by May 23, as required under Zimbabwean law, risked rendering the election process illegitimate.
Results from the first round were delayed by the ZEC for five weeks and no date has been given for the second-round run-off despite the legal requirement for it to take place within 21 days of the first-round results being announced.
First-round results were published on May 2—showing Tsvangirai beat Mugabe by 47,9% to 43,2%—but ZEC officials have hinted that a second round could take up to a year to organise.
Once seen as a post-colonial success story, Zimbabwe has been in economic meltdown since 2000 when Mugabe embarked on a programme of land reforms which saw thousands of white-owned farms expropriated.
Violence has spiralled since the first round of polls, leading Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party to accuse Mugabe of orchestrating a campaign of terror to ensure his re-election through intimidation.
The MDC reported on Sunday that 32 activists had been killed and another 30 were unaccounted for.
The government has in turn accused MDC activists of fomenting violence and carrying out arson attacks.
A report on Zimbabwe state television on Sunday said the 58 MDC activists arrested had been involved in violent clashes that left seven people in hospital and destroyed four houses and a tractor belonging to members of the ruling Zanu-PF party.—AFP
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