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Tsvangirai calls on South Africa to act soon on Zimbabwe
Jonathan Clayton, Times Online (UK)
April 02, 2007

Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's embattled opposition leader, today signalled an apparent change of tactics in his ongoing confrontation with President Robert Mugabe and his brutal Zanu-PF regime.

Mr Tsvangirai, who arrived unexpectedly in Johannesburg for medical treatment, struck a notably much more conciliatory tone than in recent declarations and called on South African President Thabo Mbeki to act quickly to defuse the crisis across the border.

"It is critical that President Mbeki act quickly and decisively to halt the suffering of millions of Zimbabweans. There is no time to waste," Mr Tsvangirai told a hastily convened press conference.

Mr Tsvangirai, who apparently had no difficulty leaving Zimbabwe and planned to return after medical check-ups, appeared to be at pains to prevent a general strike in Zimbabwe from further increasing political tensions. He indicated he would be willing to take part in talks even while Mr Mugabe was still officially the Zanu-PF candidate for Presidential elections next year - a key reversal of previous policy.

President Mbeki, frequently criticised for failing to talk tough to his neighbour, was last week appointed by fellow leaders in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to mediate in the Zimbabwean crisis - a development dismissed by some as window-dressing, but seen as a critical new departure by insiders. Mr Mbeki is mandated to ensure that next year's Presidential elections are "free and fair". The SADC decision represented the first time the regional grouping had taken any concrete initiative on Zimbabwe. Diplomatic sources say it was accompanied by the bluntest behind closed doors criticism Mr Mugabe has ever received.

"Mugabe was left in no doubt the situation could not continue and his explanation for the attack on the opposition was not accepted," said one highly-placed Southern African diplomatic source. He dismissed a statement expressing solidarity with Mr Mugabe and calling for a lifting of western sanctions as simply "a face-saving exercise for the old man".

Mr Tsvangirai, whose ability as a leader has always been questioned by key figures in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), went out of his way to reject suggestions that President Mbeki was not "an honest broker" and said he had every confidence the South African leader would approach the crisis with "a new perspective".

"This is not a personal issue. Whether people have doubts about Mbeki is immaterial. This is a new initiative that is not South African driven but regionally driven," he said in comments which indicated he had fallen in line with the new policy.

"Tsvangirai knows he cannot oppose the region on this," the source added.

Leading western nations are more than willing to drop sanctions as part of an all-inclusive package of measures ensuring free and fair elections next year - the goal Mr Mbeki is now set to try and achieve with the support of all regional states, opposition figures, and civil society and church groups.

Immediately on his return to Harare, Mr Mugabe, 83, was chosen as Zanu-PF's candidate for the poll. Insiders rejected the move as little more than grand standing by party loyalists, terrified of taking any other decision. Zanu-PF factions known to oppose Mr Mugabe will not do so publicly until they are assured of broader outside support.

Mr Tsvangirai and other opposition activists were brutally assaulted while in custody after police broke up a prayer meeting on March 11. There were concerns that Mr Tsvangirai, still with a bloodshot eye and bruised face, suffered a fractured skull.

Opposition activists have since continued to be detained, assaulted and abducted in a crackdown by special police units amid reports of growing unease in regular police and army units.

"Mugabe's crackdown on our people leaves a trail of broken limbs, rape victims, torture victims and dead bodies," Mr Tsvangirai told reporters.

He called on the South African President, who has put together a high-level mediation team, to negotiate the conditions for next year's elections in Zimbabwe. "Mugabe has a last opportunity to show goodwill by allowing the people of Zimbabwe to express their democratic rights," he said.

Mr Mbeki is known to want to negotiate a settlement to the crisis which all sides must then respect.

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