HARARE (Reuters) - South African leader Thabo Mbeki and President Robert Mugabe held talks on Friday on Zimbabwe’s election crisis ahead of a possible run-off that has raised fears violence could escalate.
Mbeki, whose softly-softly mediation in Zimbabwe’s crisis has drawn criticism at home and abroad, met Mugabe for three hours. Their talks came a day before the opposition MDC was to announce whether it would take part in a second round.
Western powers have called on African states to do more to end the stalemate, which has dashed hopes that the election would usher in a new era of prosperity and more freedoms.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned the presidents of three southern African states — Botswana, Zambia and Tanzania — on Friday to urge them to help end the Zimbabwe deadlock.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack did not say why Rice did not telephone Mbeki.
Regional heavyweight South Africa is heading efforts by the regional grouping SADC to defuse the tension in Zimbabwe, which suffers from 80 percent unemployment, chronic food and fuel shortages and the world’s highest inflation of 165,000 percent.
But Mbeki has lost credibility as lead mediator.
“He (Mbeki) came to get a briefing as mediator. He has come to get an on the spot understanding of developments on the ground,” Zimbabwean Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu told reporters.
“It is very important for him as a mediator to get to know what is happening personally rather than from outside sources, particularly from the Western press,” said the minister. He gave no details of the discussion and Mbeki also made no statement.
The last time Mbeki met Mugabe after the election, he denied there was a crisis, a comment widely attacked by political rivals and the international community. Opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai has said Mbeki is no longer fit to mediate.
Mbeki was briefed by a South African team he sent to Zimbabwe to investigate post-election violence during the visit.
He did not meet the MDC, party officials said.
Tsvangirai, who left Zimbabwe shortly after the March 29 elections, says he won the presidential poll outright. He has yet to give a final answer on whether he will contest a run-off.
If he does not, the 84-year-old Mugabe, who has ruled since independence in 1980, will automatically win.
The MDC is expected to announce their run-off decision at a news conference in Pretoria on Saturday at 0800 GMT.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been talking to African states about how the world body could help make a run-off credible and has expressed concern about the violence.
But Mbeki has said Zimbabwe’s problems should find an African solution instead.
Asked in an interview on Al Jazeera television this week whether it would be helpful if U.N. monitors were allowed into Zimbabwe as election observers to help calm the situation and instill trust in the process, Mbeki said:
“I don’t like the idea that suggests that as Africans we cannot do the job.”
The MDC, rights groups and Western nations have accused the ruling ZANU-PF party of launching a campaign of violence to ensure Mugabe wins a run-off. ZANU-PF denies the charge and accuses the MDC of carrying out political attacks.
The opposition and civic groups have also said soldiers and armed militia groups beat civilians.
The Zimbabwe National Army told the state-run Herald newspaper it was not behind the violence and was trying hard to ensure peace returns.
Mugabe’s government has repeatedly called for an end to the violence, in which the opposition says more than 20 people have been killed and thousands displaced. Agricultural groups say 40,000 laborers have been expelled from farms.
It has rejected criticism of the elections and the weeks of delays in confirming winners, saying it was running a free, fair and democratic election process.
Official results show ZANU-PF lost its parliamentary majority to the opposition for the first time since independence. Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in the presidential poll — but not by enough votes to secure an absolute majority and avoid a run-off.
Additional reporting by Nelson Banya, Writing by Caroline Drees and Michael Georgy; Editing by Charles Dick