Zimbabwe's defeated opposition vowed Wednesday to go to court to overturn the results of the country's elections, as one of its senior members fled to neighbouring Zambia to evade arrest.
Tendai Biti, a veteran figure in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), claimed asylum in Zambia after making a dash for the border, reportedly facing charges of inciting post-election violence.
There were conflicting reports about his whereabouts, with Zambia's foreign minister saying Biti was being kept at the border and would be denied asylum, while an MDC lawyer said he was in the Zambian capital Lusaka.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa was on Friday declared winner of Zimbabwe's first elections since the downfall of autocrat Robert Mugabe in November, but the MDC claim the ruling ZANU-PF party won through "mammoth theft and fraud".
Zambian Foreign Minister Joe Malanji told AFP that the grounds of Biti's claim "do not merit him to be given asylum", and that he was being held at Chirundu on the border.
Zambian authorities "will facilitate his safe passage back to Harare", Malanji added.
But MDC lawyer Denford Halimani told AFP that Biti was in Lusaka.
According to Zimbabwe's state-run Chronicle newspaper, Biti is among nine suspects sought for inciting protests last Wednesday at which the army opened fire, killing six people.
Zimbabwe's Interior Minister Obert Mpofu confirmed that Biti -- an internationally-respected finance minister in the troubled 2009-2013 power-sharing government -- was in Zambia.
The asylum drama came as the MDC said it would lodge a court challenge against the election results in which Mnangagwa won 50.8 percent.
The result was just enough to avoid a run-off between Mnangagwa, the former Mugabe ally who replaced him, and his MDC rival Nelson Chamisa, who scored 44.3%.
"Those results represent a total negation of the will of the people," MDC lawyer Thabani Mpofu told reporters in Harare, charging that the results published by the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) "grossly mathematically fail to tally".
- Arrests and beatings -
Mnangagwa, who is seeking to reverse Zimbabwe's economic isolation and attract badly needed foreign investment, had vowed the elections would turn a page on Mugabe's repressive 37-year repressive rule.
But the election has been marred by accusations of a post-vote crackdown on the opposition as well as the deadly protests and rigging claims.
Human Rights Watch has reported multiple cases of beatings and harassment in Harare's suburbs as soldiers allegedly attack opposition supporters, sparking alarm from the European Union and United States.
The MDC headquarters were raided last week by authorities in what Mpofu described as "an attempt to destroy our evidence" for election rigging, but he said their data was secure.
The MDC has until Friday to lodge its suit and the Constitutional Court must rule on the petition within 14 days -- meaning Mnangagwa's inauguration would likely be delayed.
- Secret weapon? -
Mpofu declined to detail what evidence of fraud the MDC claims to have, promising instead to reveal "a secret weapon" in court.
Alexander Noyes, an analyst at the US Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the legal case had little chance of success due to the courts' "long-held bias" towards ZANU-PF.
He added the MDC would likely cite a EU observer report that concluded the election was held on an "un-level playing field", with Mnangagwa benefiting from state resources as well as a degree of voter intimidation.
Derek Matyszak, Zimbabwe analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, said he would be "very surprised" if the detailed results published by the electoral commission were fraudulent.
"It would be rather odd to manipulate the results and then issue a spreadsheet inviting people to find out exactly how that manipulation had taken place," he told AFP.
The ZEC was notorious for fraud under Mugabe, but it has staunchly denied allegations of rigging this time around, as have Mnangagwa and his party.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has told Mnangagwa he must rein in his security forces, also speaking with Chamisa to urge him not to take his party out onto the streets.
Analysts say Mnangagwa needs strong international support if he hopes to succeed in his bid to reverse the massive damage Mugabe did to Zimbabwe's economy.
Agricultural output plummeted after Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms in 2000 and public services are in ruins, while hyperinflation has forced Zimbabwe to abandon its currency and rely largely on the US dollar instead.AFP