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South African President Thabo Mbeki Attempts Eleventh-Hour Zimbabwe Mediation

South African President Thabo Mbeki met Wednesday with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in an effort to mediate in the country's crisis as political violence continued to rage and a leading opposition figure remained in police hands facing treason charges nine days before a national election.

Mr. Mbeki postponed a trip to Sudan to hold the unscheduled meeting with Mr. Mugabe. They met in the western Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo, the country's second-largest, at the request of Mr. Mugabe who was campaigning in Matabeleland. Mr. Mbeki stopped in Harare where he met with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and took aboard his ambassador to Zimbabwe, Mlungisi Makhalima.

South African Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said Mr. Mbeki was to meet Mr. Mugabe "in continuation” of the Zimbabwe mediation role which President Mbeki was assigned by the Southern African Development Community in March 2007, when an earlier political crisis flared.

Sources in Pretoria said Mr. Mbeki was pushing Mr. Mugabe to agree to a government of national unity in cooperation with Mr. Tsvangirai's opposition Movement for Democratic Change

Diplomatic sources said Mr. Mbeki would urge Mr. Mugabe to halt the violence that has claimed more than 70 lives according to MDC estimates, and to accept the outcome of the run-off. Mr Mugabe has vowed not to step down even if he loses the election, warning of "war" if Tsvangirai should win.

International Crisis Group senior analyst Sydney Masamvu told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that what he described as a last-ditch effort by Mr. Mbeki suggests that he knows Mr. Mugabe will not accept any election outcome other than re-election, and the crisis is deepening.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon expressed "profound alarm" at the situation in Zimbabwe, saying "violence, intimidation and arrest of opposition leaders are not conducive to credible elections," a U.N. spokesman quoted Ban as saying."hould these conditions continue to prevail, the legitimacy of the election outcomes would be in question," Ban added.

Jacob Zuma, head of South Africa's ruling African National Congress, said he didn't think a free and fair vote was likely in the Zimbabwe poll next week. "I think we'll be lucky if we have a free election," Mr. Zuma told Reuters. When asked if he thought the vote would be fair, Mr. Zuma replied"I don't think so."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was to chair an informal U.N. Security Council meeting in New York on Thursday to discuss the crisis in Zimbabwe, diplomatic sources said.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...