Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 26, 2008
HARARE, Zimbabwe, June 25 -- Zimbabwe's battered opposition called Wednesday for the deployment of thousands of African Union peacekeeping troops to bring order to a nation ravaged by months of political violence as President Robert Mugabe clings to power after 28 years.
The plea came as African leaders increasingly condemned Mugabe's ruthless campaign of retribution against the opposition that has left 86 party members dead and thousands wounded. A key group of southern African leaders urged Mugabe to cancel Friday's presidential runoff election.
Former South African president Nelson Mandela, speaking in London, complained about "the tragic failure of leadership in our neighboring Zimbabwe." Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga, warned that Zimbabwe "right now is a disaster in the making."
In Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, Jose Marcos Barrica, an Angolan minister heading an election observer mission for the Southern African Development Community, said, "When a brother beats a brother, that is a crisis."
Reports of assaults by youth militias have not eased since opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the runoff on Sunday. With attacks widespread -- and Tsvangirai spending most of his time in the safe haven of the Dutch Embassy -- opposition officials say that only outside powers can bring peace to Zimbabwe.
Tsvangirai's spokesman, George Sibotshiwe, said the party already has tentative commitments from several regional powers, including Tanzania and Angola, for a peacekeeping force. He estimated that a total of 4,000 armed and unarmed troops are needed.
After briefly emerging from the Dutch Embassy, Tsvangirai told reporters gathered at his home that the African Union and southern African regional powers needed to lead a mediation effort in Zimbabwe.
"The time for actions is now," Tsvangirai said at a news conference. "The people and the country can wait no longer."
In response to a question, Tsvangirai said he "didn't ask for military intervention, just armed peacekeepers."
Leaders of the Southern African Development Community, meeting Wednesday near Swaziland's capital, Mbabane, adopted a four-page statement in which they called for a postponement of the election and negotiations between Mugabe and Tsvangirai.
"The political and security situation in Zimbabwe appears not to be permissive for holding the runoff election in a manner that would be deemed free and fair," the statement said. "Holding the election under the current circumstances may undermine the credibility and legitimacy of its outcome."
Though the statement was far stronger than any previously issued by the 14-member regional body, officials at the summit, including Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, declined to name any actions they might take against Mugabe if the election goes ahead.
In an interview Wednesday night, Zimbabwean Security Minister Didymus Mutasa dismissed the idea of an African Union force, which would take weeks, and perhaps months, to assemble and could not be deployed without explicit approval from Mugabe's government.
"We have said that this is not necessary at all because Zimbabweans are not at war," Mutasa said.
Zimbabwe has been locked in political stalemate since the March 29 election in which the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, won control of parliament and Tsvangirai outpolled Mugabe. Electoral officials, after withholding results for a month, said Tsvangirai narrowly missed an absolute majority, setting up the runoff vote scheduled for Friday.
Even as the crisis has captured the world's attention, conditions within the country continue to deteriorate. The world's worst inflation strains the government's ability to measure it. Ruling party youths patrol many towns and cities. Torture, beatings, arson and false arrests are common. Many of Tsvangirai's key party officials are in jail, in exile or dead.
With global criticism building, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain -- Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler -- stripped Mugabe of ceremonial knighthood, a title he received in 1994 when he was still perceived as a symbol of African liberation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa called on Mugabe to resign and likened him in an interview to "a kind of Frankenstein."
But frustration at the slow pace of international action has focused on South African President Thabo Mbeki, traditionally the region's diplomatic leader but widely perceived here as coddling Mugabe.
More than 100 opposition activists, many of whom fled their homes in recent weeks because of ruling party attacks, demanded refuge from the South African Embassy in Harare on Wednesday. As the cold Southern Hemisphere night fell over the city, they were wrapped in blankets in the parking lot, waiting for food or shelter.
"Mbeki is the one who is saying things are okay. We want him to see that his negotiations are not working," said Melody Nhamburi, 34, who was sitting outside the mission with her baby, who she said was filthy and hungry after days of hiding from police.
Mbeki "is busy negotiating while people's homes are being destroyed," she said. "People are being beaten and people are being killed. We want him to see that the situation is desperate."