Dutch Foreign Ministry: Tsvangirai seeks refuge

June 23, 2008 12:29:04 PM PDT
Zimbabwe's opposition leader has fled to the Dutch Embassy saying he feared for his safety, while police on Monday raided his party's headquarters and took about 60 people away. Morgan Tsvangirai went to the embassy Sunday shortly after announcing he was withdrawing from Friday's presidential runoff against longtime leader Robert Mugabe, citing violence against opposition supporters, a Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

"He asked to come and stay because he was concerned about his safety," ministry spokesman Rob Dekker said. There has been no request for political asylum, Dekker said.

Opposition spokesman Nqobizitha Mlilo refused to comment on the report and referred callers to The Hague.

Mugabe's government says Friday's runoff will go ahead and Tsvangirai's name remains on the ballot.

Tsvangirai won the first round of the presidential election on March 29, but did not gain an outright majority against 84-year-old 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.

Tsvangirai had returned to Zimbabwe a month ago to campaign despite information his party had said it received 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 been repeatedly detained by police.

At a news conference in Harare late Monday, Zimbabwe's police commissioner, Augustin Chihuri, said neither Tsvangirai nor his party had come to police to report any threats, and that 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. "Zimbabwe is a peaceful country and this will remain so."

Tsvangirai has survived at least three assassination attempts and last year he was hospitalized after a brutal assault by police at a prayer rally. Images seen around the world of his bruised and swollen face have come to symbolize the plight of dissenters in Zimbabwe.

He had applied for a new passport earlier this month and Zimbabwean officials refused, saying he lacked proper police clearance. His current passport has not expired but its pages are full.

On Sunday, he pulled out of the violence-wracked presidential runoff, declaring that the election was no longer credible and the loss of life among his supporters was simply too high.

The prospect of a sham election drew strong criticism from the international community.

"The Mugabe regime cannot be considered legitimate in the absence of a runoff," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement. "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."

Western powers outraged at the turmoil in Zimbabwe began pushing Monday for the U.N. Security Council to condemn the violence and insist on a fair presidential election.

Britain and France were joining the U.S. in seeking a council statement of condemnation on the Zimbabwe violence. They expect opposition from Zimbabwe's two biggest trading partners, South Africa and China. On Monday, Dumisani Kumalo, South Africa's ambassador to the U.N., said his nation was taking a wait-and-see approach to the council's deliberations.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also planned to hold an urgent briefing for reporters on the situation in Zimbabwe on Monday afternoon.

But Zimbabwe's longtime, increasingly autocratic ruler has shown 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 the people taken away from party headquarters 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 police took 39 people from the opposition headquarters as part of an investigation into political violence. He said they had been taken to what he called a "rehabilitation center" for interviews.

After a similar raid in April, police detained scores of people they accused of being responsible for postelection violence. A court later released them.

Roy Bennett, treasurer of Tsvangirai's party, told The Associated Press in Johannesburg, South Africa that the party was not turning its back on elections.

He 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.

"We honestly believe that we will move forward to a new round" of elections, Bennett said.

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. ZANU-PF, he said, risked being "totally isolated and totally rejected by the African countries as well as the world at large."

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 Movement for Democratic Change has said Mbeki should step down, accusing him of bias in Mugabe's favor.

Mbeki's spokesman Mukoni Ratshitanga said a South African negotiating team was in Zimbabwe 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 steadfastly 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.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, who currently holds the rotating chair of the Southern African Development Community, said Sunday a "catastrophe" was looming in Zimbabwe. He expressed frustration with Mbeki, saying he had been unable to reach him in recent days and complaining he was not sharing information about his mediation efforts.

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Associated Press writers Arthur Max in Amsterdam, Netherlands and John Heilprin at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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