Zimbabwe opposition accused military of plotting to kill party leader

Published on Monday 19th May 2008

NAIROBI (AFP): The opposition party of Zimbabwe accused the country's military Monday of plotting to assassinate its presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Tendai Biti, secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change, made the allegation in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. "The assassination plot involves snipers," Biti said, adding that the MDC believed there were 18 snipers involved in a plot backed by the country's military.

Biti said that Tsvangirai planned to return to Zimbabwe to contest a June 27 runoff election once security measures were in place to protect him against the supposed assassination plot. The opposition said that it received details of the alleged plot Saturday as Tsvangirai was on his way to the airport in Johannesburg for his return home, but Biti declined to elaborate further "because it would put a lot of lives at risk."

Biti also condemned the failure of other African leaders to confront President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's leader of 28 years, with the strongest terms ever used by his party. And he said the campaign of violence by Mugabe's regime could backfire, entrenching the opposition among many of the Zimbabweans who have fled the country with plans to return to vote in the runoff.

The governing party, ZANU-PF, blames the opposition for the violence that has followed the disputed March 29 vote, which included parliamentary elections that were won by the MDC.

A third of Zimbabwe's population has fled in recent years as the country confronts chronic shortages of food, medicine, fuel and cash precipitated by the government's seizure of white-owned farms, which once produced enough to feed the country and export to neighbors. Earlier this month, the government introduced a half-billion Zimbabwe dollar note as part of efforts to deal with runaway inflation, which unofficial estimates put at 700,000 percent a year.

Tsvangirai claims that he won the presidential election outright. But official results and those compiled by independent monitors show that he did not win the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a runoff.

The opposition leader decided he must take part in the run-off, because otherwise Mugabe would win unchallenged. Biti said Tsvangirai would return "very soon", despite the alleged plot.

The run-off was called after Zimbabwe's election commission declared Tsvangirai won nearly 48% of the vote in the first round, compared to just over 43% for Mugabe.

The opposition, which believes it was cheated of thousands of votes through ballot-rigging, claims Tsvangirai won 50.3% of the ballot, giving him the necessary majority for an outright victory.

Since the poll at the end of March, Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party has unleashed a wave of attacks against Tsvangirai supporters that appear to be aimed at intimidating the opposition.

Biti said that the planned runoff legitimizes Mugabe's "theft" of the election and would not resolve Zimbabwe's crisis. It still was not too late to negotiate a "unity government of national healing." Not contesting was not an option as it would hand Mugabe victory, he said.

"The basic problem is that we have an old man, a geriatric, who is not prepared to give up power and that situation isn't going to change on June 27," Biti said. A runoff was "merely extending and exacerbating the crisis," he added, legitimizing "Mugabe's constitutional coup."

The answer, Biti added, is for African leaders to persuade Mugabe to negotiate a coalition government.

Biti railed against African leaders' failure to confront Mugabe: "What's concerning us is this lack of statesmanship, of leadership by African leaders. The Zimbabwe crisis is exposing every leader on the African continent, embarrassing us as Africans because we are not able to resolve our own problems."

Mugabe's credentials as the leader of a liberation movement that fought a seven-year guerrilla war and forced an end to white rule in 1980 still enhances his stature among many Africans. But this year's crisis, and the violent government response, which human rights defenders say has killed dozens, injured hundreds and forced thousands from their homes, has divided the region's leaders.