HARARE Zimbabwe's opposition MDC will not participate in a presidential run-off against Robert Mugabe, a top party official said on Thursday, after reports of escalating violence deepened a post-election crisis.
The Movement for Democratic Change believes its leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the outright majority in the March 29 election he needed to avoid a second round. But if he does not contest, Mugabe is automatically declared the winner.
"Our official position still remains the same that we are not participating," MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti told reporters in Cape Town.
But he added the party will hold talks with civic society groups from Zimbabwe in Pretoria on Saturday and hold a news conference afterwards "to put this issue to rest".
South Africa's Foreign Ministry said President Thabo Mbeki, who has been a primary regional mediator in Zimbabwe, will travel to Harare on Friday to meet political leaders.
"During his visit President Mbeki is expected to interact with the Zimbabwean political leadership," said Ronnie Mamoepa, a spokesman for South Africa's department of foreign affairs.
Mbeki, who has faced a barrage of criticism for not taking a tough line with Mugabe, had said there was no crisis in his southern African neighbor. Tsvangirai has said Mbeki was no longer fit to mediate in Zimbabwe.
Weeks of political stalemate have increased tensions in Zimbabwe, which is suffering an economic meltdown that has sent millions of people fleeing to neighboring countries and left those who remain struggling with the world's highest inflation rate, rampant unemployment and shortages of basic necessities.
Critics have accused the ruling ZANU-PF party of resorting to violence to frighten voters.
Farmers' groups said ZANU-PF has pushed 40,000 workers off farms in a campaign targeting supporters of the opposition ahead of a possible presidential run-off. The groups said armed youth militias drove workers off the farms.
"We have had security agents going out to the farms, addressing the farm workers," Gertrude Hambira, general secretary of the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers' Union of Zimbabwe, told a news conference in Johannesburg.
"Some of them saying that we need to discipline you because you voted for the opposition," she said adding, 400 workers were in hiding and three were in hospital after being assaulted.
Zimbabwe's government rejects accusations from the opposition, human rights groups and Western countries that ZANU-PF has launched a campaign of violence to ensure Mugabe wins a run-off. The party says the MDC has carried out attacks.
The White House renewed its call on Mugabe and his supporters on Thursday to end "violence and intimidation".
Zimbabweans had hoped the election would usher in a period of prosperity and greater freedoms.
Instead, they have fallen victim to a struggle between their president and Tsvangirai, who has raised questions about his leadership by touring African states seeking support from leaders instead of taking on Mugabe at home.
Critics blame the economic collapse on Mugabe's policies, including the seizure of white-owned farms to give to landless blacks. Mugabe, 84, says sanctions imposed by his Western critics have ruined the country.
His government has been cracking down on dissent.
Police on Thursday arrested the leaders of the country's main trade union over speeches they made during a workers' day rally last week, their lawyer said.
Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) President Lovemore Matombo and Secretary-General Wellington Chibebe, who are critical of Mugabe, were taken into custody after surrendering to police, who were reportedly looking for them, their lawyer Andrew Makoni, told Reuters.
"They have been arrested on allegations of communicating falsehoods prejudicial to the state and are being detained in police cells," he said.
Police have also arrested the editor of a privately owned weekly that is critical of the president over its publication of an opinion piece by a leading opposition politician.
Central bank governor Gideon Gono, who has been critical of some government policies, called on the political opponents to work together and said failure to end an election deadlock could undermine efforts to rescue the battered economy.
Gono said he was not suggesting that there should be a "forced government of national unity" but he warned a post run-off political crisis "would be a tragedy of unimaginable proportions" in an opinion piece in the Financial Gazette.
Biti called for reconciliation and said any future government should include all parties, except for Mugabe, after a comprehensive political settlement.
(Additional reporting by Phakamisa Ndzamela in Johannesburg and Wendell Roelf in Cape Town, writing by Michael Georgy, editing by Mary Gabriel)