Zimbabwe's Morgan Tsvangirai takes refuge in Dutch embassy

Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who has pulled out of a presidential election because of violence, sought refuge overnight in the Dutch embassy, officials of that country have said.

There was no immediate confirmation from Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change. The Dutch foreign ministry said he had not requested asylum but was welcome to stay for his own security.

Earlier the MDC said police raided its Harare headquarters and took away more than 60 victims of the violence, in which it says nearly 90 of its supporters have been killed by militias backing President Robert Mugabe. Those detained included women and children.

Tsvangirai, who pulled out of the June 27 vote on Sunday, saying his supporters would risk their lives if they voted, said on Monday he was ready to negotiate with Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, but only if the violence stopped.

He pressed regional leaders to push for a postponement of the vote or for Mugabe to step down. But the government said Tsvangirai's withdrawal came too late to call off the election.

Concern mounted both within and outside Africa over Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis, which has flooded neighbouring states with millions of refugees. Both the African Union and Southern African Development Community (SADC) were discussing the situation following Tsvangirai's pullout.

Former colonial power Britain said Mugabe must be declared an illegitimate leader and sanctions should be stiffened against his supporters.

Tsvangirai told South Africa's 702 Radio: "We are prepared to negotiate with ZANU-PF but of course it is important that certain principles are accepted before the negotiations take place. One of the preconditions is that this violence against the people must be stopped,"

Several foreign governments have urged a national unity government to end Zimbabwe's dire crisis. This has previously been rejected by both sides.

Mugabe, 84, who has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980, has vowed never to hand over to the opposition, branding them puppets of the West.

He denies his supporters are responsible for the violence, which broke out after Mugabe and ZANU-PF lost elections on March 29. Tsvangirai fell short of an absolute majority, forcing next Friday's run-off.

The former guerrilla commander has presided over a slide into economic chaos, including 80 percent unemployment and the world's highest inflation rate of at least 165,000 percent.

The African Union's top diplomat, Jean Ping, said he was consulting with AU Chairman Jakaya Kikwete, the Tanzanian President, with SADC and with South African President Thabo Mbeki - the region's designated mediator on Zimbabwe - to see what could be done following Tsvangirai's withdrawal.

"This development and the increasing acts of violence in the run-up to the second round of the presidential election, are a matter of grave concern to the Commission of the AU," he said.

Angola's foreign ministry said SADC foreign ministers were meeting in Luanda on Monday to discuss the Zimbabwe crisis and might issue a statement later in the day.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, the current SADC chairman, said on Sunday the run-off must be postponed "to avert a catastrophe in this region."

Zambian Foreign Minister Kabinga Pande told Reuters a SADC security troika of Angola, Swaziland and Tanzania would propose the next move by the regional body.

Troika foreign ministers last week asked their presidents to take urgent action "to save Zimbabwe", saying a free and fair election was impossible.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission said it was still looking forward to a credible electoral process on Friday.

"I don't believe that the level of violence in the country is such that a credible election is impossible. We don't have a war. We will be able to hold credible elections," ZEC chairman George Chiweshe told African election monitors in Harare.

Renaissance Capital investment bank said in a research note that the opposition withdrawal was likely to delay talks on a national unity government. It said Zimbabwe risked economic collapse with the real inflation rate at around 5 million percent.

There were also concerns the worsening crisis would hit South Africa's rand currency, RBC Dominion Securities said.

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