HARARE, Zimbabwe - President Robert Mugabe on Thursday said he is open to talks with the opposition, which is boycotting Friday's run-off because its leader says state-sponsored violence has made it impossible to take part.
World leaders have dismissed the run-off as a sham, but electoral officials say it will go ahead with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's name on the ballot. Tsvangirai predicted that people could be forced to go to polling stations.
"There could be a massive turnout not because of the will of the people, but because of the role of the military and the role of traditionally people being forced to the polls," Tsvangirai said in a Thursday interview with British Broadcasting Corp.
Mugabe had shown little interest in talks and his government had scoffed at the Movement for Democratic Change's call Wednesday to work together to form a transitional authority.
"We remain open to discussion with the MDC," Mugabe said while speaking at a campaign rally in Chitungwiza, about 25 kilometres south of the capital.
But Zimbabwean Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said Mugabe's words did not indicate that the leader was softening toward the opposition. He said Mugabe had always insisted that the run-off must take place in accordance with the country's constitution.
Matonga would not say how soon after the election the two parties would meet, saying that if Mugabe won the election he would address the nation soon afterward.
Prior to Mugabe's comments, Tsvangirai was quoted as saying negotiations won't be possible if Mugabe goes ahead with run-off.
"Negotiations will be over if Mr. Mugabe declares himself the winner and considers himself the president. How can we negotiate?" Tsvangirai said in an interview with the Times newspaper of London.
Tsvangirai won the first round March 29, but did not gain an outright majority against 84-year-old Mugabe, who has held power since independence from Britain in 1980.
The March campaign was generally peaceful, but the run-off 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.
Tsvangirai, the only candidate facing Mugabe in the run-off, announced Sunday he was withdrawing and then fled to the Dutch Embassy for safety.
In the capital, Harare, more than 300 opposition supporters have fled to the South African Embassy, fearing for their lives.
The Red Cross in Zimbabwe has supplied food, blankets and tents to the group sheltering in the embassy, South Africa's ambassador to Zimbabwe, Mlungisi Makalima, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the opposition party's No. 2 official, who has been charged with treason, was granted bail and released from jail.
Tendai Biti was required to surrender his passport and the title to his home and report to police twice a week in addition to bail set at 1 trillion Zimbabwean dollars, or about $100, lawyer Lewis Uriri said.
Biti returned to his home in the capital late afternoon, two weeks after he was jailed looking tired and frail but still sounding defiant.
"Some people stay 27 years in prison so two weeks is nothing," he said in an interview with Associated Press Television News. "It wasn't easy though but we have to continue fighting."
Anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, who criticized Zimbabwe's leadership Wednesday, spent 27 years in a jail before becoming South Africa's first democratically elected president.
On Thursday, both the government and the opposition reacted strongly to Mandela's criticism, with Mugabe's spokesman dismissing the comments and Tsvangirai reverently welcoming them.
Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said Mandela was only bowing to western pressure when he spoke of Zimbabwe's "tragic failure of leadership" at a London fundraiser. Keenly aware of Mandela's status as anti-apartheid icon, Ndlovu condemned the West for pressuring African leaders, not Mandela.
Mandela rarely differs publicly with South African President Thabo Mbeki, but many Africans have questioned Mbeki's unwillingness to criticize Mugabe, his neighbour.
"We appreciate the solidarity from Nelson Mandela," Tsvangirai said. "It is something we cherish."
Also on Thursday, Mugabe blamed the British government for the loss of his knighthood.
"We continue to respect the Queen," Mugabe told a campaign rally. "It's the demons at Downing Street that need to be exorcized." The British prime minister's office is on London's Downing Street.
On Wednesday, the Queen stripped Mugabe of his ceremonial knighthood to express Britain's revulsion over human rights abuses.