Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has taken refuge in the country's Dutch Embassy, and is calling on the international community to declare Friday's planned presidential elections “null and void”.

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“We have called upon (outside governments) – in this unprecedented situation – to intervene to ensure that the elections are declared null and void if they can do that, and special elections are then organised in a free and fair atmosphere,” Mr Tsvangirai told CNN.

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His call was echoed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has urged Zimbabwe's authorities to put off the poll in view of the state-sponsored violence which forced Mr Tsvangirai to withdraw from the vote on Sunday.

“I would strongly discourage authorities from going ahead with the run-off (vote on) Friday,” Mr Ban told reporters. “It would only deepen the divisions within the country and produce results that cannot be credible.”

The Dutch foreign ministry said Mr Tsvangirai had spent the night in the embassy, and that he was welcome to stay for his own security. It said he had not requested asylum.

'Exhibitionist antic'

“He is currently reflecting on what the next step should be,” spokesman Bart Rijs added. There was no immediate confirmation from Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

But Zimbabwe's police chief, Augustine Chihuri, said Mr Tsvangirai was under no threat and had taken refuge at the Dutch embassy deliberately, to “provoke international anger”.

“It is an exhibitionist antic, (a) move intended to provoke international anger,” Mr Chihuri said.

“We at the same time ask the Dutch embassy, if indeed he is there, to tell him to go home and enjoy your sleep and nothing will happen to him.”

The MDC said police – some in riot gear – had raided its Harare headquarters and taken away more than 60 victims of the political violence sheltering there, including women and children.

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

MDC supporters 'taken away'

The opposition party says nearly 90 of its supporters have been killed by militias backing President Robert Mugabe.

Mr Tsvangirai said he was ready to negotiate with Mr Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, but only if the violence stopped.

He pressed regional leaders to push for a postponement of the vote or for Mr Mugabe to step down. But the government said Mr Tsvangirai's withdrawal came too late to call off the election.

Concern mounted both within and outside Africa over Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis, which has flooded neighbouring states with millions of refugees.

Both the African Union (AU) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) are said to be discussing the situation following Mr Tsvangirai's pullout.

Former colonial power Britain said Mr Mugabe must be declared an illegitimate leader and sanctions should be stiffened against his inner circle, which Prime Minister Gordon Brown called “a criminal and discredited cabal”.

Unity government proposal

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said even if the runoff went ahead, it would not legitimise Mr Mugabe's government.

Several foreign governments have urged a unity government to end Zimbabwe's dire crisis but this has previously been rejected by both sides.

Analysts said the withdrawal by Mr Tsvangirai was likely to delay any solution of this kind.

Mr Mugabe, 84, who has been in power since independence in 1980, has vowed never to hand over to the opposition, branding them puppets of the West.

He denies his supporters are responsible for the violence, which broke out after he and ZANU-PF lost elections on March 29. Mr Tsvangirai fell short of an absolute majority in the presidential vote, forcing next Friday's run-off.

Former guerrilla commander Mr Mugabe has presided over a slide into economic chaos in Zimbabwe, including 80 per cent unemployment and the world's highest inflation rate of at least 165,000 per cent.

'No legitimacy for winner'

The African Union's top diplomat said he was consulting with AU chairman Jakaya Kikwete, the Tanzanian president, with the SADC and with South African president Thabo Mbeki – the region's designated mediator on Zimbabwe – to see what could be done following Mr Tsvangirai's withdrawal.

Jean Ping said the withdrawal and the political violence were “a matter of grave concern to the commission of the AU”.

The Dutch government, a major aid donor to Zimbabwe, called on the UN, the EU, the AU and neighbouring states to discuss new steps against Mr Mugabe.

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who mediated an end to Kenya's post-election crisis earlier this year, said any election or declaration of a winner would be neither credible nor acceptable and the victor would have no legitimacy.

But the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission said it was still looking forward to elections on Friday. “We don't have a war. We will be able to hold credible elections,” ZEC chairman George Chiweshe said.

Tsvangirai takes refuge, wants vote called off