Tsvangirai fears capture if he returns to Zimbabwe before poll

Zimbabwe's opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, the presumed front-runner in the presidential election held three weeks ago, has said he intends to remain out of the country for the time being for fear of being attacked or imprisoned.

"It is no use going back to Zimbabwe and become captive," the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader, who left Zimbabwe 10 days after the poll, told Canada's The Globe and Mail. "Then you are not effective. What can you do? Do you want a dead hero?"

Mr Tsvangirai, who has spent most time recently in South Africa, said he would return, but first wanted to mobilise international support against President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF government. The ruling party lost its majority in the 29 March election, and independent monitoring groups calculate that the MDC leader fell just short of a first-round victory in the presidential poll, securing between 49 per cent and 50 per cent of the vote.

After an initial period of turmoil, Mr Mugabe and his associates have embarked on a clear strategy of seeking to reverse the result of both polls. The result of the presidential election has been withheld, and MDC officials and supporters in Zanu-PF's former strongholds have been attacked. Some officials of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) have been arrested, along with members of the country's largest voluntary poll monitoring group.

Yesterday, the nominally independent ZEC began recounts in 23 seats, 16 of which it had previously declared in favour of the opposition. Zanu-PF would regain its majority if the results in nine seats were reversed in its favour, but lawyers have said the exercise, which is expected to last three days, violates electoral procedures, and the MDC has said it will ignore the outcome. "We reject the outcome of this flawed process," said MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa. "As far as the MDC is concerned, the first results stand. Anything else will be an illegitimate process." He said it was "clear" that the ballot boxes had been tampered with in the three weeks since polling.

The recounts were being observed by a South-African led team from the Southern African Development Community, but the opposition has been disillusioned by the feeble stance of the organisation and its designated mediator, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. Yesterday former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said the situation in the country was "dangerous" and pointedly urged Africa's leaders to do more. "The recounts remove any doubts about the ZEC being a partisan organisation," said David Coltart, an opposition senator and constitutional expert. "If they start announcing that someone else has won a seat, it will be illegal. Only a court can decide that a result should be overturned."

It was clear, Mr Coltart added, that Zanu-PF had known the presidential result since 2 April, when the government-owned Herald newspaper reported that there would be a run-off. The delay since then had removed any claim to legitimacy that the poll could have given Mr Mugabe. "All this amounts to is a rather clumsy coup disguised as an election."

The US government and the New York-based group Human Rights Watch is among those that have accused the Mugabe government of violent retaliation since the election. Zanu-PF, it said, was setting up "torture camps to systematically target, beat, and torture people suspected of having voted for the (opposition) MDC in last month's elections".

According to dissident policemen who have been briefed on the ruling party's strategy, about 50 constituencies have been targeted for intimidation. The aim was to have mixed groups of police, army officers, Zanu-PF militants and "war veterans" in place for the snap announcement of a presidential election run-off.

The police said they had been ordered to stand by and watch when party youth militia and "war veterans" attacked opposition supporters, to emphasise to the victims that they would receive no protection. The aim was to displace MDC supporters and officials, so that they would not be able to vote when the second round was called. They had also been told that less strict scrutiny would make it easier to stuff ballot boxes.

Meanwhile, a Chinese ship carrying arms to Zimbabwe which was turned away from South Africa is heading to Angola in hopes of docking there. The ship left South African waters on Friday. It is believed to be carrying three million rounds of AK-47 ammunition, 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades, and an unknown number of mortar rounds. Mozambique's transport and communications minister told Reuters that Mozambique has been monitoring the ship's movements since it left South Africa.