The UN security council last night warned Robert Mugabe that a free and fair election in Zimbabwe was "impossible", after the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai quit the presidential race and sought refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare amid escalating violence.
As Mugabe's forces kept up their assault on the opposition, raiding the opposition Movement for Democratic Change's HQ and hauling away scores of people sheltering from abductions, beatings and worse, the security council unanimously adopted a statement condemning the government's "campaign of violence" that had "denied its political opponents the right to campaign freely".
It was the security council's first formal action on the crisis. South Africa, Mugabe's strongest regional backer, had hitherto blocked UN involvement in the crisis, but it agreed to the statement, a move described as significant by British diplomats. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said earlier that proceeding with Friday's run-off ballot "will only deepen divisions within the country and produce a result that cannot be credible".
But the ruling Zanu-PF said the election would go ahead regardless despite Tsvangirai's withdrawal, while Mugabe repeated threats to pursue his opponents after the ballot. He warned he held the MDC responsible for the violence, and said the government would pursue those it regarded as responsible for the country's economic collapse, including white businessmen.
"Sooner or later we are going to accuse the MDC leadership of being vicariously responsible for the violence," he said.
Tsvangirai won the first round of elections in March, but withdrew from the run-off saying he could not ask people to die voting for him. His move has intensified foreign criticism of Mugabe.
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Earlier, Gordon Brown told parliament that governments should not recognise an election rigged "by a criminal and discredited cabal". The US said that without a fair election a Mugabe victory on Friday could not be seen as legitimate. The African Union said Tsvangirai's withdrawal from the race and the violence was a "matter of grave concern" although the organisation fell short of attributing responsibility to Zanu-PF.
The condemnations did little to curb the violence. Many of the people taken away from the MDC's headquarters by armed police in riot gear were women and children, families of MDC activists and officials, such as councillors. The police said people were removed from the offices in Harare for "health reasons".
Violence proliferated elsewhere. The MDC said one of its MPs, Thamsanqa Mahlangu, was critically ill in hospital after being attacked by Zanu-PF on his way to a rally in Harare on Sunday. The rally was to be addressed by Tsvangirai, but was called off after thousands of armed Zanu-PF supporters occupied the venue and attacked people.
Last night, Lord Ashdown said military intervention could be necessary if the situation worsened. Zimbabwe, he told the Times, "could deteriorate to a point where genocide could be a possible outcome - something that looks like Rwanda".
Tsvangirai fled to the Dutch embassy within hours of withdrawing from the presidential race on Sunday. MDC sources said there was concern the government would arrest him or target him for assassination.
Until Tsvangirai pulled out, he was afforded a degree of protection as a presidential candidate. Zanu-PF attacked or arrested many other senior MDC officials, including the secretary general, Tendai Biti, in jail on trumped-up treason charges. But Zanu-PF needed to allow Tsvangirai to remain free, even if it detained him for brief periods to wreck his political rallies, to maintain the illusion of a fair election.
The Dutch embassy is one of the few in Harare which offers relative neutrality. Tsvangirai could not go to the British or US missions because it would be used by Zanu-PF to reinforce the claim that he is a tool of the "imperialists". Diplomats said that the South Africans and most African embassies would not want him; neither would the Chinese.
Zanu-PF said the presidential election would go ahead. The justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa, described Tsvangirai's withdrawal as an attempt to "hoodwink" Mugabe's supporters.
"Zanu-PF is not treating the threats seriously; it is a nullity. We are proceeding with our campaign to romp to victory on Friday," he said.
"Tsvangirai went into the election thinking that it was a sprint, and was not prepared for a marathon and wants to avoid defeat. He spent his time globe-trotting and gallivanting in Europe and left MDC supporters without leadership.
"Zanu-PF exploited the opportunity and campaigned vigorously for victory. When [Tsvangirai] returned, he realised that the tables had turned against him." The Zimbabwe government continues to blame the MDC for the violence. "The MDC and its western masters are waging a war on us, and we have been forced to adopt a defensive position to safeguard our political independence and national sovereignty," Chinamasa said.
Tsvangirai told South African radio yesterday that he was still prepared to negotiate a political solution with the government, but first there must be peace. He said: "We are prepared to negotiate with Zanu-PF, but of course it is important that certain principles must be accepted before the negotiation takes place. For instance, one of the preconditions is that the violence against the people must stop."
The MDC has said it is prepared to share power but that- as Tsvangirai won the first round of elections, and the party forced Zanu-PF into opposition in parliament for the first time since independence in 1980 - Mugabe must relinquish office. His ally, President Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, urged the Zimbabwean leader to end "all acts of intimidation and violence".
The Southern African Development Community election monitors are also privately saying that there is no way they will be able to endorse the election as legitimate, and they blame Mugabe. But it remains to be seen whether they will voice such criticism in public.
© 2008 The Guardian