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Rice Delivers Stark Assessment of Zimbabwe's President

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 20, 2008; Page A12

UNITED NATIONS, June 19 -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told foreign diplomats here Thursday that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's violent crackdown on opposition leaders had dashed hopes that the June 27 presidential runoff election would "be allowed to proceed in a free and fair manner."

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Rice's assessment came on a day that the opposition said the bodies of four party activists were found near Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. Witnesses told the Associated Press that the victims were taken away in trucks on Wednesday by militias chanting ruling party slogans.

During a U.N. roundtable meeting, Rice accused Mugabe's supporters of killing at least 60 opposition figures, injuring thousands and confiscating food shipments at a time when millions of Zimbabweans are dependent on food aid. She also accused Mugabe of ordering his supporters to "cleanse" neighborhoods that voted overwhelmingly for opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of voting in March.

But Rice's visit here also underscored the limits of U.S. influence at the world body, where American efforts to rally U.N. Security Council support for a tougher response to Mugabe's crackdown have failed.

"This orchestrated campaign of violence and harassment by the regime is designed to prevent Zimbabwe's opposition from conducting its peaceful election campaign," she said. "By its actions, the Mugabe regime has given up any pretense that the June 27 elections will be allowed to proceed in a free and fair manner."

Rice came to U.N. headquarters to preside over a public meeting of the Security Council, which adopted a U.S.-sponsored resolution demanding the cessation of sexual violence against civilians in armed conflicts around the world. She said the resolution "establishes a mechanism" for bringing sexual atrocities to light.

But the focus of her visit quickly shifted to Zimbabwe.

Rice sharpened her criticism of Mugabe but said the United States is looking to the United Nations, the African Union and the Southern African Development Community to take the lead in pressing him to cease the intimidation and harassment of opposition figures.

Rice said the Security Council would meet next week to hear a briefing on Zimbabwe by U.N. envoy Haile Menkerios.

The Southern African Development Community, currently chaired by South Africa, has been reluctant to publicly criticize Mugabe during the electoral crisis. But several African leaders have grown increasingly outspoken since he threatened to continue ruling even if he loses the election.

Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga, on Wednesday called for the intervention of international peacekeepers to ensure that Zimbabwe freely elects its next president.

"This is an embarrassment to Africa because it makes a sham of the presidential election," Odinga said.

Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe told the BBC that "the first impression we have is that if the elections were to take place today, these elections would never be free and fair."

But when asked whether punitive measures were being considered, Burkina Faso's foreign minister, Djibril Bassole, told reporters, "We're not there yet."

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