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Southern African leaders met yesterday for talks on the Zimbabwe crisis as President Robert Mugabe indicated he was open to negotiations with the opposition, but only after this week's run-off election.

The talks in the Swaziland capital opened without South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has been appointed mediator for Zimbabwe by the region and has faced criticism over his quiet diplomacy approach

South Africa said there was no need for a military intervention in Zimbabwe as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) defence and security committee -- made up of Angola, Tanzania and Swaziland -- started its meeting in the Swaziland capital.

"President Mbeki is not a member of the troika," said the president's spokesman, Mukoni Ratshitanga, adding he "has not been invited to the meeting."

But Tercy Simelane, a spokesman for Swaziland's prime minister, said though the meeting was of the troika, the "doors were open" for Mbeki to attend "as a facilitator in the Zimbabwe talks."

Zimbabwe's political crisis deepened after opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai announced he was pulling out of Friday's presidential run-off election saying violence had made a fair vote impossible.

He said he could not ask supporters to cast ballots when it could cost them their lives.

Tsvangirai took refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare after his announcement and has remained there for more than two days. He planned a press conference for Wednesday, though it was unclear whether he would leave the embassy.

Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in the first round of the election but did not get the majority required to take the presidency from his rival.

Mugabe, in his first direct comments on Tsvangirai's withdrawal, defied international criticism and vowed that the election would go ahead, saying the opposition chief had pulled out because he was afraid of losing.

"Other people can say what they want, but the elections are ours and we are a sovereign state," Mugabe told a rally in Banket, north of Harare, on Tuesday.

"We will proceed with our election."

The state-run Herald newspaper on Wednesday quoted Mugabe as saying he was open to negotiations, but Friday's run-off would be held first.

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