HARARE, Zimbabwe Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said Sunday he is pulling out of this week's presidential runoff because of mounting violence and intimidation against his supporters.
Tsvangirai announced his decision during a news conference in Zimbabwe's capital after thousands of militants loyal to President Robert Mugabe blockaded the site of the opposition's main campaign rally.
"We can't ask the people to cast their vote ... when that vote will cost their lives. We will no longer participate in this violent sham of an election," he said. "Mugabe has declared war, and we will not be part of that war."
Zimbabwean Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said the runoff would go ahead in accordance with the constitution and to prove Zimbabweans' support for Mugabe, who has held power since independence from Britain in 1980.
"The constitution does not say that if somebody drops out or decides to chicken out the runoff will not be held," Ndlovu said.
Tsvangirai said he would put forward new proposals by Wednesday on how take the country forward. He did not provide any details about what the proposals would include.
"Our victory is certain, but it can only be delayed," he said.
Tsvangirai won the first round of the presidential election on March 29, but did not gain an outright majority against 84-year-old Mugabe. That campaign was generally peaceful, but the runoff has been overshadowed by violence and intimidation, especially in rural areas. Independent human rights groups say 85 people have died and tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes, most of them opposition supporters.
On Sunday, the Movement for Democratic Change claimed the militants were beating opposition supporters who were trying to reach the site of a planned campaign rally and said at least two people were seriously injured.
The opposition said the militants attacked journalists and forced African election monitors near the rally site to flee. Election monitors could not immediately be reached for comment and there was no independent confirmation of the opposition claims.
Mugabe said Friday that the opposition was lying about the violence and said everywhere he visited was peaceful. His powerful police chief pinned the blame firmly on the opposition and said that police would clamp down.
Tsvangirai complained that he was being treated like a "common criminal," with his attempts to tour the country stymied by police at roadblocks.
The state-controlled media have banned opposition advertisements, claiming they "contain inappropriate language and information." The media cited one ad that claimed that Tsvangirai won the election, "which is not the case, hence the runoff."
Tendai Biti, the opposition party's No. 2, was arrested within minutes of his return from South Africa last week and is being held on treason charges.
"It is evident that the Mugabe regime has disregarded regional and continental opinion that has been calling for an end to disruption of MDC election campaign programs, state sanctioned brutality, violence and harassment of the people of Zimbabwe," the opposition said in a statement.
Mugabe was lauded early in his rule for campaigning for racial reconciliation. But in recent years, he has been accused of ruining the economy and holding onto power through fraud and intimidation.
The economic slide of what was once the region's breadbasket has been blamed on the collapse of the key agriculture sector after often-violent seizures of farmland from whites.
Mugabe claimed he ordered the seizures, begun in 2002, to benefit poor blacks. But many of the farms instead went to his loyalists.