President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe said on Thursday he has been talking to opposition leader Nelson Chamisa to try to defuse tension over the Monday presidential election after violent clashes on the streets of Harare.
Writing on Twitter, Mr Mnangagwa also called for an independent investigation into the violence, in which three people were killed after soldiers were deployed to the streets of the capital.
Zimbabwe police said three people were killed in Harare on Wednesday as soldiers dispersed stone-throwing opposition supporters who accused the ruling party of trying to rig Monday’s presidential election.
The deployment of soldiers and their beating of unarmed protesters set back Mr Mnangagwa’s efforts to shed Zimbabwe’s pariah status after decades of repression under Robert Mugabe, who was ousted in a coup in November.
Even before the violence, European Union observers questioned the conduct of the presidential and parliamentary vote, the first since Mr Mugabe’s forced resignation after nearly 40 years in charge of the southern African nation.
Zimbabwe’s electoral commission had said it would start announcing results for the presidential race from 10.30 GMT on Wednesday but that was then pushed back at least 24 hours.
EU monitors said the delay was undermining the vote’s credibility.
Commonwealth observers also on Thursday accused the Zimbabwe security forces of using excessive force on protesters.
Police spokesperson Charity Charamba told state broadcaster Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) that the three people killed in the clashes had yet to be identified.
Gunfire crackled as troops, backed by armoured vehicles and a military helicopter and some with their faces masked, cleared the streets of opposition protesters.
The unrest started soon after Mr Chamisa, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), declared that he had won the popular vote.
After burning tyres in the streets, scores of his supporters attacked riot police near the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) headquarters.
Officers responded with tear gas and water cannon.
“I was making a peaceful protest. I was beaten by soldiers,” said Norest Kemvo, who had gashes to his face and right hand.
“This is our government. This is exactly why we wanted change.
They are stealing our election.”
Mr Mnangagwa said the violence was meant to disrupt the election and blamed the MDC leadership.
“We hold the opposition MDC Alliance and its whole leadership responsible for this disturbance of national peace, which was meant to disrupt the electoral process,” Mnangagwa said, according to ZBC.
Mr Chamisa’s spokesman, Nkululeko Sibanda, told journalists that the army’s reaction was unjustified. “Today we saw the deployment of military tanks and firing of live ammunition on civilians for no apparent reason.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Zimbabwe’s political leaders and people to exercise restraint and reject any form of violence.
Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi said the army had been called in to ensure “peace and tranquillity.”
Mr Charamba said the troops were deployed at the request of police who could not cope with the violence, and will remain under police command.
As gunfire reverberated through downtown Harare, Mr Mnangagwa called for calm and urged patience while results were collated.
Many protesters accused the army of unprovoked brutality.
“We had no weapons. Why are the army here beating us? shooting us? This is not an election it is a disgrace on our country,” one young man, Colbert Mugwenhi, said.
A Reuters witness saw soldiers with sticks beat two people and counted at least five trucks full of soldiers.
“We are tired of them stealing our votes. This time we will not allow it, we will fight,” said a protester who wore a red MDC beret in central Harare.