Zimbabwe?s ruling ZANU-PF government says claims that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) uncovered a plot to assassinate opposition leaders ahead of next month?s election run-off are irresponsible. The government says the opposition assertion is aimed at forcing President Robert Mugabe to invite international poll observers from what it calls enemy states to monitor the June 27 vote, a demand previously sought by the opposition. But the MDC maintains plots by the government to use snipers to assassinate MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and other leading figures are true and should be taken seriously.

The opposition claims the strategy has led to the indefinite suspension of Tsvangirai?s return to Zimbabwe for a nationwide campaign ahead of the run-off. From Harare, University of Zimbabwe political science professor John Makumbe tells reporter Peter Clottey that the opposition?s assassination claim is credible.

?The latest is that Morgan Tsvangirai has postponed his return to Zimbabwe until further notice, and the government here is denying any such plot. But the truth of the matter is there is so much violence going on in the countryside that it is very clear that the military who are really running the country now would very easily and very quickly assassinate Morgan Tsvangirai should he step back in Zimbabwe,? Makumbe pointed out.

He said various opposition figures have in the past suffered different kinds of threats and harassment.

?They have tried before. There has been an attempt on his (Tsvangirai?s) life before, and why now? Because he beat Robert Mugabe. You know, when they tried the last time, he had not actually openly beaten Robert Mugabe in a way, which was published by the electoral authorities. This time he whipped him and Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has openly published those results, and it looks like he is going to beat him again in the run-off. And to prevent that, the military and other security forces would like to assassinate Morgan Tsvangirai,? he said.

Makumbe said the assassination plot could cause problems for the opposition in the election run-off.

?It is going to be a very difficult time for the MDC. Morgan Tsvangirai is personally popular. Nobody else can campaign like Morgan Tsvangirai can campaign. So, even though lieutenants would actually do the work and campaign for him while he is out of the country, it would not be the same. And therefore, the level of support may in fact be less than it could be,? Makumbe pointed out.

He said some partisans would question the rationale behind Tsvangirai?s delay in returning to Zimbabwe.

?People would be saying why is he outside the country? Why doesn?t he come here? Who is he leaving here to die? Is he so afraid of the dictator? If he is so afraid, how can he be a good leader? There would be all sorts of questions, and the run-off may actually be won by Robert Mugabe by default,? he said.

Makumbe said the opposition MDC needs to ask for more international poll observers to ensure free and fair election run-off.

?The opposition must pressure the Southern African Development Community, the African Union, and the United Nations to send observers right away into Zimbabwe. Once the observers are here, the violence may stop, and possibly, Morgan Tsvangirai can come into the country with a space of three to four weeks before the 27th of June and in that short time, he can do wonders and beat Robert Mugabe thoroughly in the run-off,? Makumbe pointed out.