Zimbabwe's campaign of violence escalates

The international community seeks to influence the Mugabe government as Army leaders orchestrate political attacks.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    On the stump: Opposition party leader Morgan Tsvangirai has been arrested twice in the last week on the way to campaign rallies. He spoke Sunday in Kwekwe, Zimbabwe.
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The options for resolving Zimbabwe's crisis are dwindling as political violence rises ahead of the June 27 presidential elections.

International analysts now have little faith in the credibility of the vote – or their ability to improve the process. They suggest that any resolution is likely to come through mediation.

Zimbabwean authorities detained and harassed US and British diplomats last week while they were on a fact-finding mission over political violence.

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Normally, harassment of diplomats is the sort of thing that brings on sanctions and sternly worded statements in the United Nations. But for Zimbabwe – which has rolled out a series of strong-armed measures against opposition party activists, international aid agencies, and tens of thousands of its own people – harassment is now commonplace.

On June 9, a call for African leaders to intervene was issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in London. The 14-nation Southern African Development Community appointed South African President Thabo Mbeki to mediate between President Robert Mugabe and the opposition, but those efforts have "not borne any fruit," HRW researcher Tiseke Kasambala told the Associated Press.

A new HRW report says it has documented 36 deaths and more than 2,000 injuries at the hands of party militants backed by the police and army. Opposition party officials say more than 65 of their supporters have been killed.

Mr. Mugabe is unlikely to respond to outside pressure, say analysts, particularly when it comes from the US and Britain.

"Mr. Mugabe, in my view, is pretty impenetrable, and his henchmen are simply impervious to this sort of pressure," says Tom Wheeler, a research fellow at the South African Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg. "Zimbabwe today is rather like apartheid South Africa, actually," Mr. Wheeler adds. "Apartheid South Africa would invade small neighboring countries, they would bomb ANC headquarters in Lusaka, and they didn't care about international consequences."

Critics of the Mugabe regime say that the president and his inner circle – particularly those in the military and intelligence agencies – are pulling out all stops to make sure that opposition supporters are too intimidated to show up to vote on June 27. Morgan Tsvangirai, the trade unionist and leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), defeated Mugabe during the first-round election on March 29, but not by a sufficient margin to avoid a runoff.

In the past week, Mr. Tsvangirai was detained on two separate occasions, in both instances on his way to speak at an MDC rally. On Wednesday, Tsvangirai says he was arrested and detained by security agents for nine hours and that his driver was beaten by police at a police station in the town of Lupane.

Police deny they arrested Tsvangirai, saying they merely stopped his convoy on Wednesday because one of his vehicles did not have proper registration.

The political violence comes at a time when the country is heading rapidly toward economic collapse, with falling food production and an estimated 600,000 percent inflation. A loaf of bread currently costs 1 billion Zimbabwe dollars (or about US$5), and salaries have not kept pace. Heightening concern is the decision last week by Zimbabwe to ban aid agencies such as CARE and Oxfam, which distribute food to the country's most vulnerable communities.

"We are deeply concerned at this development," said Charles Abani, Oxfam's director in Southern Africa, in a statement. "A lot of people are completely reliant on food aid to keep them alive."

Authoritative sources in the military and ZANU-PF say that the national Army is behind Mugabe's brutal campaign because the octogenarian could not trust his inner circle to spearhead it. Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since the country's independence from Britain in 1980, is also the commander in chief of the armed forces.

"It was noted at a JOC (Joint Operation Command) meeting soon after the March election that without using force, Mugabe cannot win an election," a senior official of the ruling ZANU-PF party told the Monitor in Harare. "This is why the party has employed soldiers, war veterans, and youth militia."

He says that the ZANU-PF strategy is to displace all MDC activists and supporters from the rural areas and instill fear into the hearts of those in town so that they do not vote. "You will see on the [election] day that all polling stations in rural areas will be manned only by people loyal to ZANU-PF because no MDC supporter will dare going there."

Reminded that there will be an outcry from local and international observers, he said, "Even if they [observers] come, there won't be any difference now because the damage has already been done. People are afraid to go to the rural areas."

University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer Eldred Masunungure says that it is now impossible to hold free and fair elections, because Zimbabwe has been turned into "a murder zone." He describes Mugabe's strategy as a "comprehensive onslaught" on all dissenting voices "to produce one outcome, a predetermined outcome which is a victory for ZANU-PF and its candidate Robert Mugabe."

MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa dismisses widespread rumors that the MDC and ZANU-PF were in high-level talks aimed at a power-sharing government including both sides. "Talking is best demonstrated by behavior on the ground," says Mr. Chamisa. "There are no talks going on and I want to bury that speculation.... How can we talk when our people are being killed?"

Masunungure concurred: "I don't see them talking under the present political environment. If they are talking, it's exploratory rather than substantive."

• A reporter who could not be named for security reasons contributed to this story from Harare.

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