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Tsvangirai seeks refuge in Dutch embassy

HARARE, June 23 – Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was holed up in the Dutch embassy in Harare Monday after saying he was abandoning his election challenge to President Robert Mugabe because of growing violence.

As international pressure mounted on Mugabe, with Britain and the United States raising the prospect of UN Security Council action, a spokesman for Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said Tsvangirai had spent the night in its mission in the Zimbabwe capital.

"A request was made yesterday by his party, the MDC, and Minister Verhagen decided that, if he sought safety, it would be granted," spokesman Bart Rijs told AFP.

"He is currently reflecting on what the next step should be," Rijs added.

Police, some of them in riot gear, raided the headquarters of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on Monday afternoon.

MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said more than 60 people, many of them "victims of political violence" had been rounded up in the raid which he branded an "act of desperation and frustration" by Mugabe’s regime in the wake of Tsvangirai’s decision to opt out of Friday’s run-off presidential vote.

A police spokesman denied any arrests and said 39 people had been taken away for health reasons.

Tsvangirai announced his election withdrawal on Sunday, saying increasing pre-poll violence had made a free and fair vote impossible. The opposition says more than 80 of its supporters have been killed in a campaign of intimidation.

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Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party accused Tsvangirai of playing political games and insisted that Friday’s election would go ahead.

"We are proceeding with our campaign to romp to victory on Friday," Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa was quoted as saying by the government-run newspaper, The Herald.

Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in a first round presidential vote in March, but official results did not give him the absolute majority required to avoid a run-off.

The MDC leader insists he won the first round outright.

With regional governments facing increased pressure to resolve the political crisis, Western criticism of Mugabe’s rule intensified, with Britain and the United States leading the way.

"In forsaking the most basic tenet of governance — the protection of its people — the government of Zimbabwe must be held accountable by the international community," said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"The Mugabe regime cannot be considered legitimate in the absence of a runoff," Rice said.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told parliament, "The international community must send a powerful and united message: that we will not recognise the fraudulent election rigging and the violence and intimidation of a criminal and discredited cabal."

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called Tsvangirai’s withdrawal a "deeply distressing development" and a bad omen for the country’s future, his spokesman said.

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Efforts to resolve the crisis pressed ahead, however, with a high-level South African mediation team in Zimbabwe, a spokesman for President Thabo Mbeki said.

"They are engaging with all parties in Zimbabwe," Mukoni Ratshitanga said.

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