The Mugabe regime launched a crackdown targeting opposition leaders and foreign journalists last night ahead of a key meeting of its inner circle this afternoon expected to end a week of speculation over the outcome of elections.
The prospects for a peaceful transition of power to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) diminished after a day in which security chiefs were reported to have told the ruling Zanu-PF party to refuse to accept a poll defeat.
Late last night, riot police and paramilitaries ransacked opposition offices at one hotel in the centre of Harare and raided another, detaining at least two foreigners, including a correspondent for The New York Times. The owner of the hotel was reported to have said that the two people arrested were Christian Aid workers.
A senior MDC official told The Independent this could be "a sign of things to come" if the opposition and regional leaders did not grant more concessions to Robert Mugabe's party in the negotiations going on behind closed doors following Saturday's poll. As news of the actions spread several senior opposition members denied going into hiding, but said they will "exercise greater caution".
Police officials said the foreigners had been detained for working without accreditation.
Zimbabwe uses a restrictive accreditation system and draconian laws to deter critical news organisations from entering the country.
A security source speaking on condition of anonymity said that air force personnel had been called in and told to prepare for violence. There was no confirmation about whether a similar call had been made to the police or army, but the so-called "war veterans" organisation, a paramilitary group often used for intimidating political opponents, was reported to have been called to muster.
Intense diplomatic efforts led by neighbouring countries continued in an attempt to avert violence.
Senior ruling party figures are due to attend an emergency meeting of their politburo this afternoon, which is expected to end the speculation over the run-off. One suggestion is that supporters of Mr Mugabe will try to extend the interim period before any second round of voting from three weeks to 90 days.
But another unconfirmed rumour suggested that the 84-year-old President would stand down ahead of a new presidential vote to be replaced by an alternative candidate from his party.
Zimbabwe's electoral commission began to announce Senate results within minutes of the police actions in the capital last night. Although the Senate is largely ceremonial, its results must be announced before the presidential votes can be revealed.
The MDC has already said its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, won the presidential contest, and that its own poll figures show he took 50.3 per cent of last Saturday's vote. If confirmed, these figures, which have been roundly rejected by the Zanu-PF, would hand Mr Tsvangirai a first-round win. But the opposition has made clear it will not stand in the way of a run-off and is privately confident a second vote will deliver a humiliation to the "old man".
A smaller MDC faction, which won 10 seats in parliament and threw its weight behind the Zanu-PF defector, Simba Makoni, in the first round of the presidential vote, said it would strongly back Mr Tsvangirai in a run-off. "It is obvious that all democrats must rally around the candidacy of Morgan Tsvangirai in the run-off and if we all do then Robert Mugabe stands to be annihilated and indeed humiliated," said David Coltart, a senator with the smaller faction.
The South African President, Thabo Mbeki, who tried last year to mediate a future settlement for Zimbabwe, urged all sides to accept the official results. "We would continue to hope that we will achieve this outcome – that nobody would be contesting the results," he said.
Speaking in Bucharest, Gordon Brown said he had spoken to Mr Mbeki on Tuesday and would be speaking to him again "very soon". Mr Brown said he had also had contacts with the president of the African Union and the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan. "It is clear there was one party ahead, the MDC, although there are issues about the majority," he said. "We don't yet have the presidential results. It is not for us to pre-empt the results. But the results cannot be delayed forever."
Mr Mugabe made his first public appearance yesterday, pictured on state television receiving an African Union delegation. A government spokesman said the President was confident he would win a re-run. The regime's mouthpiece, The Herald, admitted the ruling party had lost its parliamentary majority, but claimed that Zanu-PF was ahead in the popular vote.
Jonathan Moyo, a former favourite of Mr Mugabe who is now an independent MP after falling out with him, said his former mentor was living in an "ivory tower". He said Mr Mugabe was not being told the truth by his advisers and still thinks "the people love him".
For days analysts have been warning that the painfully slow announcement of results concealed an effort to "pad" the numbers in constituencies where Zanu-PF had won in order to manipulate the popular vote. In at least three constituencies the official turnout figure was 150 per cent of registered voters.
Patrick Chinamasa, one of seven cabinet ministers to lose his seat, appealed to colleagues to declare the election null and void and announce a re-run. Security chiefs who face the sack under a new administration have called on Mr Mugabe to fight on. Zimbabwe's neighbours, meanwhile, have pleaded with Mr Mugabe to make a "graceful exit".
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