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Military 'plotting to kill Tsvangirai'

Zimbabwe's opposition party accused the country's military yesterday of plotting to assassinate presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai using snipers.

Secretary-General Tendai Biti, of the Movement for Democratic Change, made the allegation in Kenya's capital.

"The assassination plot involves snipers," Biti told The Associated Press after a news conference in Nairobi. He said 18 snipers were involved in the alleged plot.

"It is the military (plotting), the JOC (Joint Operational Command) that has been running the country" since Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, lost March 29 elections to Tsvangirai. "I cannot speak (more) of that because it would put a lot of lives at risk," Biti said.

Biti said Tsvangirai planned to return to Zimbabwe to contest the June 27 runoff election once security measures are in place to protect him against the alleged assassination plot. The opposition says it received details of the alleged plot on Saturday as Tsvangirai was on his way to the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, to return home.

Biti also condemned African leaders' failure to confront Mugabe, Zimbabwe's leader of 28 years, using the strongest terms yet used by his party.

And he said the campaign of violence by Mugabe's regime could backfire, entrenching opposition with many of the millions of Zimbabweans who have fled the country planning to return to vote in the June runoff presidential election.

A third of the population has fled Zimbabwe 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 that once produced enough to feed the country and export to neighbors.

The government this month introduced a half-billion Zimbabwe dollar note in efforts to deal with runaway inflation that unofficial estimates put at 700,000 percent a year.

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

Biti said the runoff legitimizes Mugabe's "theft" 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" and legitimizing "Mugabe's constitutional coup."

The answer, he said, 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," he said. "I think that the paralysis of leadership and perspective lies (with) certain officers indebted to Robert Mugabe ..."

Mugabe's credentials as the leader of a liberation movement that fought a seven-year guerrilla war that helped 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 leaders.

Biti's party has asked the Southern African Development Organization to replace South African President Thabo Mbeki as its chief negotiator in the Zimbabwe crisis.

Mbeki's insistence on "quiet diplomacy" to persuade Mugabe to change has largely failed, though his negotiations that led to election results being posted outside ballot stations did ensure a more open process that allowed the opposition to claim victory.

International efforts to intervene have been hampered by Mbeki and South Africa's current chairmanship of the UN Security Council.