Tsvangirai calls off return after 'credible' assassination warning

Zimbabwe's opposition leader remains in South Africa as violence surges ahead of next month's run-off poll
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Zimbabwe's opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, yesterday called off his scheduled return home because of what his party declared a "credible" assassination plot against him.

Since the 29 March election, when he pushed President Robert Mugabe into second place but fell short of an absolute majority, Mr Tsvangirai has spent most of his time abroad. He said he needed to rally international support against Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF government, but also admitted that he feared for his safety. The result of the presidential poll was withheld for nearly five weeks, amid increasing violence, before it was announced on Friday that the run-off would be held on 27 June.

The Movement for Democratic Change leader returned to his base in Johannesburg yesterday from Belfast, where he addressed the Liberal International Conference. He was on his way to his office, from where he was due to head for Johannesburg airport, when he received the plot warning.

"We have received information from a credible source concerning a planned assassination attempt on President Tsvangirai," said an MDC spokesman, George Sibotshiwe. "Because of that it has been decided that the president will not return today." He would give no further information, except to say that the source was in a position to know of the plot, which was striking in its detail.

Mr Sibotshiwe refused to say whether government officials were implicated, but complained that the government had refused to take threats to Mr Tsvangirai seriously. The opposition, he added, was working with regional leaders instead of the government to organise bodyguards and safe vehicles in Zimbabwe for its leader. "It's almost impossible to work with the Zimbabwean government," he said.

Mr Tsvangirai had been due to address a party caucus in the capital, Harare, last night and an MDC rally in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, today. It is not clear when he will return, but few believe a free and fair election can be held in a month's time as the level of violence and intimidation is constantly rising. The MDC says at least 40 of its supporters have been killed and hundreds more beaten as Zanu-PF takes revenge for its election setback.

The attacks have been concentrated in Mashonaland, a former Zanu-PF stronghold, where thousands of MDC officials and supporters have been driven from their homes, with the apparent aim of preventing them voting next month. On Friday the US-based Human Rights Watch said it had confirmed that six people died in a single incident on 5 May. The victims were beaten and tortured at a Zanu-PF "re-education" meeting that some 500 people were forced to attend in the Chishewe district, said HRW. Two men died on the spot, one at home, and three others later in hospital. Three of those who died had severely mutilated genitals and one had crushed testicles.

The MDC's efforts to persuade regional leaders to put pressure on Mr Mugabe have largely failed. South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, the mediator appointed by the Southern African Development Community, received a report on the violence recently, and is now said to believe a unity government is the only way out of the crisis. Mr Mbeki was reported to have discussed the proposal with Mr Mugabe when he visited Harare last week. Mr Tsvangirai has confirmed talks on a unity government have taken place, and last week dropped his insistence that Mr Mugabe play no part in it.

The government remained defiant yesterday, insisting that the run-off would go ahead on 27 June without any of the MDC pre-conditions. There were unconfirmed reports yesterday that it had finally taken delivery of a consignment of Chinese arms, delayed when South African port workers refused to offload the ship carrying them.