HARARE, Zimbabwe – Zimbabwean opposition leader and presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai returned quietly to his homeland Saturday, stopping first to visit hospitalized supporters targeted in an onslaught of state-sponsored violence, then calling on increasingly autocratic President Robert Mugabe to "set his people free."
Tsvangirai left six weeks ago to warn the world about impending violence. He first tried to return a week ago, but called that off after his party said he was the target of a military assassination plot. The former union leader has survived at least three assassination attempts.
Last week, a party meeting in central Harare and a rally had been planned for his return. In the end, he came back in typically low-key style.
He arrived at the capital's main airport with little fanfare and then sped off in a three-car convoy to a Harare hospital were victims of political violence were being treated.
"I return home to Zimbabwe with a sad heart," he told reporters after the hospital visit. "I have met and listened to the stories of the innocent people targeted by a regime seemingly desperate to cling to power."
Tsvangirai faces a presidential runoff against Mugabe on June 27. Independent human rights groups say opposition supporters have been beaten and killed by government and ruling party thugs to ensure the 84-year-old Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, wins the second round. He trailed Tsvangirai in the first round on March 29.
"Mugabe once led our people to freedom," Tsvangirai told reporters in Harare. "He can even now set his people free from poverty, hunger and fear" by stepping down.
The violence poses serious questions about whether the runoff can be free and fair. But Tsvangirai said he did not expect it to keep his supporters from the polls.
"If Mugabe thinks he has beaten people into submission, he will have a rude shock on the 27th," he said.
Tsvangirai told The Associated Press on the way to the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, that he felt safe returning.
He had said farewell to his family with a quick "OK. Cheers," on the front porch of his northern Johannesburg home. One of his twin daughters took pictures with her cell phone. Tsvangirai said it was not clear when his wife and six children would join him in Zimbabwe.
Among the assassination attempts Tsvangirai, 56, has survived was one in 1997 by unidentified assailants who tried to throw him from a 10th floor window. Last year, he was hospitalized after a brutal assault by police at a prayer rally, and images seen around the world of his bruised and swollen face have come to symbolize the plight of dissenters in Zimbabwe.
Tsvangirai said he left Zimbabwe April 8 to present regional leaders with information that Mugabe's military planned attacks on the opposition. He said then he expected to be away only a few weeks but instead embarked on an international tour designed to rally support for democracy in Zimbabwe.
"I'm sure that we have managed to ensure an African consensus about the crisis in Zimbabwe," he said, adding it was now time to turn his attention to rallying his supporters in Zimbabwe.
In Harare Saturday, Tsvangirai said 42 of his party's "most dedicated, brightest and strongest" supporters and activists have been killed since the first round of voting.
Tsvangirai claims he won the first round outright, and that official results released May 2 showing a runoff was necessary were fraudulent. Asked whether he thought Mugabe would be any more likely to step down in June than he was in March, Tsvangirai said the runoff result would be "definitive."
Mugabe was hailed at independence for encouraging racial reconciliation and providing educational and economic opportunities for the black majority. But he was later of accused of holding onto power through fraud, violence and intimidation. Zimbabwe's economic decline has been blamed on the collapse of the key agriculture sector following the seizures, often violent, of farmland from whites. Mugabe claimed the seizures, begun in 2002, were to benefit poor blacks, but many of the farms went to his loyalists.
Tsvangirai was looking ahead to what he said would be a difficult task: healing a nation "traumatized" by political violence. He said he was inspired by Mugabe's independence era racial reconciliation campaign, but the challenge now was greater.
"It was easier when it was black and white," Tsvangirai said. "But your own brother against your own brother, torturing, killing. It's brother against brother, it's black against black. (The division is) going to be bitter, it's going to be deep, it's going to be lasting."
He said Zimbabwe would have to embark on something similar to South Africa's truth and reconciliation process, under which human rights violators of the apartheid era were offered amnesty if they made a full accounting of their crimes and asked for forgiveness. Tsvangirai said he did not want a trial of Mugabe, saying that would distract Zimbabweans from building a future.
Tsvangirai called on Zimbabweans who have fled their country's political and economic collapse to return. By conservative estimates, 4 million Zimbabweans are abroad, most in South Africa.
"There's a serious political challenge back home that needs everyone," he said. "It's no longer just the responsibility of the MDC to push out Mugabe. It's all of us."
Zimbabweans have been among the main targets in a deadly wave of anti-foreigner violence in South Africa blamed on impoverished South Africans who see immigrants as competitors for scarce resources. Tsvangirai said Saturday that the South African violence can also be blamed on Mugabe.
"Our crisis in this country is impacting on (neighbors') economies and societies" he said in Harare. "The entire ... region awaits a new Zimbabwe."