Thabo Mbeki tells Mugabe to form unity government

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Robert Mugabe was under mounting pressure last night from the South African President Thabo Mbeki to to negotiate with the opposition MDC on a unity government after he is declared "winner" of an "election" today in which he is the only contender.

African diplomatic sources said Mr Mbeki and other African leaders had given up hope of persuading Mr Mugabe to cancel the presidential run-off and were now focusing on how best to alleviate the Zimbabwe crisis after Mr Mugabe, 84, is declared victor. The South African envoys Sydney Mufamadi, the local government minister, and Mojanku Gumbi, the legal adviser, are understood to have met Mr Mugabe in Harare to implore him to accept talks.

At a campaign rally yesterday, Mr Mugabe indicated that the message was getting through. "Should we emerge victorious, which I believe we will, sure we won't be arrogant, we will be magnanimous and say, 'let's sit down and talk'," he said. But analysts said the offer was an empty gesture. The MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has said he will only negotiate if the run-off is declared null and void.

So confident is Mr Mugabe of a "landslide" that he has ordered a plane to take him to Cairo next week for a summit of African Union (AU) leaders. He is being cast a further lifeline by the growing disunity among African leaders on how to deal with the Zimbabwe crisis, sources warned. While a handful of leaders including Botswana's Ian Khama, Zambia's Levy Mwanawasa and Kenya's Raila Odinga believe it is time to tell Mr Mugabe his time is up, many others led by Mr Mbeki oppose the use of strong rhetoric.

Mr Mugabe said he he was prepared for any criticism at the AU. "I will be going there in Egypt and I understand there are some people who are gearing themselves for an attack on Zimbabwe," he said. "I want to say to any country which will raise its finger in the AU, our elections have been free."

He rejected calls from the Southern African Development Community for a postponement of today's vote. "We have some of our brothers in Africa making that call, pushing us to violate our own law, and we have refused to do so, we are sticking to our law," he told the rally.

The MDC leader's deputy Tendai Biti, who has been held for two weeks on treason charges, was released on bail yesterday. After his release he called the run-off vote a "farce".

The Zimbabwean deputy information minister, Bright Matonga, said Mr Mugabe would address the nation soon after his swearing-in. "That speech will shape the vision for Zimbabwe," he said.