Zimbabwe's Opposition Leader Tours Southern Africa to Pressure Mugabe

Zimbabwe's opposition leader embarked on a tour Wednesday of southern Africa, hoping neighboring leaders will persuade President Robert Mugabe to release long-delayed election results and resolve the political crisis paralyzing his nation.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change claims its candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, won the March 29 vote outright and has asked the High Court judge to force publication of the results. Hearings were to continue Wednesday, 11 days after the election.

Opposition officials claim Mugabe is delaying the release of the results so he can orchestrate a runoff and give ruling party militants time to intimidate rural voters and ensure he does not lose a second vote.

Still, Tsvangirai made a possible overture toward the ruling party, telling South African state radio that he wanted a government that would "create space for everyone." Even so, Mugabe must step down after 28 years in power, he said.

"I think it's time for him to take his retirement," Tsvangirai said from Botswana, where he was holding meetings Wednesday.

Earlier this week, Tsvangirai met in South Africa with Jacob Zuma, leader of South Africa's governing African National Congress party. He planned to visit other nearby countries in the coming days, Tsvangirai said.

"I will be going around the countries in the region to make that point that (southern Africa) does not need that political chaos and dislocation on their doorstep," Tsvangirai said.

African leaders have allowed South African President Thabo Mbeki to take the lead on dealing with Zimbabwe. Mbeki has said that his strategy of "quiet diplomacy" has the best chance of resolving the crisis.

Pressure continued to build on the government to release the election results, with Australia adding to calls from the United Nations, Britain, the European Union and the U.S. to release the results.

"There is simply no excuse for them being withheld more than a week after the poll," Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said in a statement.

"There are mixed signals from the Zimbabwe government on the next steps but all appear to add up to a lack of respect for the will of the people," he said.

European Union chief Jose Manuel Barroso called on Mugabe to accept voters' demand for change, and reiterated calls to release the results.

"One thing should be made very clear to Mr. Mugabe and his entourage: The people of Zimbabwe want a change. They want democracy. They want freedom. They want to be able to tackle poverty and tackle the economic chaos," Barroso told reporters in Brussels, Belgium.

Zuma repeated earlier entreaties that "results be announced as a matter of urgency," spokeswoman Jessie Duarte said Wednesday. She cautioned however, that he has made no specific appeal to the government.

Simba Makoni, a former finance minister who received less than 10 percent of the presidential vote, according to independent tallies, said he was baffled by the delay.

"The inordinate delay in announcing the results of the presidential election has only served to heighten tensions and is not serving the best interest of the country," he said.

Mugabe's party has called for a recount and a further delay. A court case to resolve the matter continued Wednesday, with lawyers for the election commission arguing that they need more time to verify the results — a contention the opposition challenged.

Makoni said he went to the election commission several days ago and asked to see where the vote verification was taking place and was denied permission. The commission has since closed its offices, and when Makoni asked for the location of the new office where the ongoing verification was taking place, he said he was again refused.

Meanwhile, the state-controlled Herald newspaper claimed Tsvangirai was "begging" for the post of vice president in a unity government. The opposition dismisses claims it is seeking a unity government, calling them lies spread by a government propaganda campaign.

Mugabe has virtually conceded that he did not win and appears to be campaigning for an expected runoff by intimidating his foes and fanning racial tensions.

Tendai Biti, secretary general of the MDC, cited "massive violence" in traditional ruling party strongholds that voted for the opposition.

Government officials said there had been no outbreak of violence. Reports that people are being beaten up and their homes torched could not be confirmed because of the danger of traveling to the rural areas.

Zimbabwe's commercial farmers union has said ruling party supporters have forced dozens of white farmers off their land. Such seizures started in 2000 as Mugabe's response to his first defeat at the polls — a loss in a referendum designed to entrench his presidential powers.

Several farmers reached by The Associated Press said the invasions continued overnight Tuesday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were worried about recrimination.