HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe defied mounting pressure on Tuesday from both inside and outside Africa to call off Friday’s presidential election, saying he had a legal obligation to go ahead.
Both Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade and South African ruling ANC leader Jacob Zuma said the presidential run-off must be postponed after opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the vote and fled to the Dutch embassy in Harare.
The U.N. Security Council issued an unprecedented and unanimous condemnation of violence against the opposition and said it made a fair poll impossible. The statement won support from South Africa, China and Russia which have previously blocked such moves.
But Mugabe shrugged off the pressure and the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe said the world could not stop the run-off election.
“The West can scream all it wants. Elections will go on. Those who want to recognise our legitimacy can do so, those who don’t want, should not,” Mugabe told a rally in western Zimbabwe.
International concern is growing over Zimbabwe’s political turmoil and economic meltdown, blamed by the West and the opposition on Mugabe, who has held power ever since independence from Britain 28 years ago.
The U.N. Security Council will consider further steps against Zimbabwe if Harare ignores its statement declaring a free and fair run-off impossible, said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the current council president.
But the envoy, speaking to reporters after a council session, declined to say what steps the council might take.
Wade said in a statement that Tsvangirai took refuge after being tipped off that soldiers were on the way to his house. “He is only safe because, alerted by friends, he left in a hurry a few minutes earlier,” Wade said.
Mugabe denied that Tsvangirai was in danger. “Tsvangirai is frightened. He has run to seek refuge at the Dutch embassy. What for? These are voters, they will do you no harm. Political harm, yes, because they will vote against you. No one wants to kill Tsvangirai.”
Zuma, who rivals President Thabo Mbeki as South Africa’s most powerful man, called for urgent intervention by the United Nations and regional body SADC (Southern African Development Community), saying the situation in Zimbabwe was out of control.
“The ANC (African National Congress) says the run-off is no longer a solution, you need a political arrangement first ... then elections down the line,” Zuma said.
Mozambique added its voice to calls for a return to talks. In a statement on Tuesday, the country’s Foreign Ministry said the situation in Zimbabwe had now reached alarming proportions.
Mugabe said he would not refuse to negotiate with Tsvangirai but the vote must go ahead. “For now there is only one thing for us to accomplish ... it’s the legal process on the 27th of June,” the 84-year-old president said.
Zimbabwe Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa said the government would not cancel the poll. “There is no valid reason for Zimbabwe to do so unless we are being asked to validate the Western propaganda against our government”.
“In any case our law does not allow for that (cancelling an election) at this stage. The election is going ahead on Friday whatever the MDC and others are saying. We are a sovereign state and we have to observe our laws,” he said.
Tsvangirai spent a second night in the Dutch embassy on Monday. He told Dutch Radio 1 on Tuesday that his refuge was temporary and the government had assured the Dutch ambassador that he would not be hurt. Tsvangirai has not claimed asylum.
He said he could leave in the next few days.
SADC foreign ministers discussed the crisis in the Angolan capital Luanda on Monday.
The state-run ANGOP news agency said SADC Executive Secretary Tomaz Salomao told reporters the group agreed with Tsvangirai that a “climate of extreme violence” existed in Zimbabwe and the government must protect its citizens.
U.S. ambassador James McGee said the SADC must declare both the election and Mugabe’s government illegitimate.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters: “If the election takes place and Mugabe stands up there and declares himself president again on the basis of that, I think it’s going to be uniformly rejected by the international community.”
The Commonwealth, to which Zimbabwe used to belong, said it was “deeply disturbed at the ... continuing violence” and “extremely concerned” that the election could not take place as planned because Zimbabweans could not vote “freely and without fear”.
The MDC formally confirmed the decision to pull out in a letter delivered to the electoral commission on Tuesday, a party spokesman said.
South Africa, an advocate of “quiet diplomacy” with Mugabe, said it was “very pleased” with the U.N. statement because it “assists us in the mediation”.
President Mbeki, the designated regional mediator in the crisis, has resisted calls to use Pretoria’s powerful economic leverage over landlocked Zimbabwe.
But Zuma, who toppled Mbeki as ANC leader last December, has become increasingly outspoken over the crisis.
The party issued a statement saying there was compelling evidence of violence, intimidation and “outright terror.” It said free and fair elections were impossible and called on Mugabe’s government “to take up the challenge of finding a negotiated settlement to the current impasse.”