JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Zimbabwe's ruling party began preliminary discussions with the opposition on Thursday in an effort to settle a political crisis in which both sides have staked a claim to the nation's presidency.
But in a statement late in the day, Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, said the talks, in Pretoria, South Africa, could not lead to genuine negotiations until state-sponsored violence stopped and 1,500 of his supporters were freed from prison.
He denounced efforts by President Robert Mugabe's government to portray the meeting as a negotiation imminently leading to a settlement, saying the ruling party, ZANU-PF, was "being disingenuous and exploiting the plight of the Zimbabwean people for political gain."
Tsvangirai was in an awkward position. For the past two days, his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has issued categorical statements that it will not take part in any kind of talks until its conditions are met. The government's announcement that talks were in the works was a "figment of the dictator's imagination," read one opposition statement. But on Thursday, Tsvangirai nevertheless sent emissaries to Pretoria.
Both sides have mentioned the need for some sort of unity government, though ZANU-PF demands that Mugabe remain on top while the opposition insists on Tsvangirai.
Tsvangirai outpolled Mugabe in a March election, but withdrew from a June 27 runoff, citing the continuing violence and leaving Mugabe the sole candidate.
Thursday's meetings may indeed prove to be nothing more than finger-pointing. But the fact that any discussions are occurring is something of a victory for the regional mediator, South African President Thabo Mbeki, a Mugabe ally of long standing whom the opposition has accused of bias in the mediation. Mbeki traveled to Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, last weekend but failed to get Tsvangirai to meet with Mugabe.
Meanwhile, by most accounts, the bloodletting continues in Zimbabwe.