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Opposition leader briefly leaves embassy

Despite a growing furor at home and abroad, President Robert Mugabe pressed ahead Wednesday with plans for a controversial election that would extend his 28-year grip on this southern African nation.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who withdrew from Friday's runoff vote after militants loyal to the government killed at least 86 of his supporters, emerged from the Dutch Embassy in Harare, where he had taken refuge Monday.

Tsvangirai said the election “would not be recognized” by Zimbabweans or the rest of the world because of what his party describes as a state-sponsored terror campaign against political opponents.

But a Mugabe spokesman, Bright Matonga, dismissed Tsvangirai's pleas as “a stage-managed stunt.” Matonga told the British Broadcasting Corp.: “People are going to vote on Friday. That is definite.”

President Bush joined a chorus of international condemnation against Mugabe, saying Wednesday that the election appears to be a “sham.”

“You can't have free elections if a candidate is not allowed to campaign freely and his supporters aren't allowed to campaign without fear of intimidation,” he said during a meeting with representatives of the U.N. Security Council. “Yet, the Mugabe government has been intimidating people on the ground in Zimbabwe. And this is an incredibly sad development.”

And Nelson Mandela for the first time spoke publicly about Zimbabwe's political crisis. The former South African president, speaking at a dinner in London on Wednesday, said there is a “tragic failure of leadership” in Zimbabwe.

Since Tsvangirai pulled out of the race Sunday, leaders from Africa and throughout the world have condemned Mugabe's tactics and urged him to delay the vote. The rhetoric had little effect on the 84-year-old president, who led Zimbabwe's drive for independence from white-minority rule in 1980, but has since presided over one of the most catastrophic economic declines in history.

Hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of Zimbabweans have sought refuge in other countries over the past year.

In remarks published Wednesday in The Herald newspaper, a government mouthpiece, Mugabe said that he was open to negotiations with Tsvangirai, but only after the election.

“They can shout as loud as they want from Washington and London, but our people will deliver the final verdict,” Mugabe was quoted as saying at a rally in rural Banket.

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