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Zimbabwe's pro-Mugabe war vets draw hard line

In a rare interview, militia leader threatens to take over more white-owned farms and businesses.

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The international community has been quiet thus far. At the United Nations Security Council last week, South Africa and Russia blocked discussion of the political crisis in Zimbabwe, and the Southern African Development Community has thus far refused to sanction Zimbabwe over its continued harassment and arrest of top opposition leaders. But in an open letter to President Mugabe, 40 African leaders, including former UN chief Kofi Annan, and former rulers such as Nigeria's Abdulsalami Alhaji Abubakar, urged Zimbabwe to end the violence and to create the conditions for a free and fair election.

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The response in Zimbabwe? In the past week, Tsvangirai has been arrested five times, and MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti was arrested last week and charged with treason, a crime that carries the death penalty.

Opposition party leaders say that government agents and pro-Mugabe militias have killed some 60 of their supporters since the March 29 elections, and injured hundreds more. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch in London documented some of the estimated 2,000 cases of beatings, including a horrific case in the town of Chiweshe, in which ZANU-PF officials and war veterans beat six men to death, and tortured 70 men and women, because of their apparent support for MDC in the March elections.

Prosper Mutema, an MDC activist from Mtoko in Mashonaland East Province says that he was captured by the so-called war veterans at midnight on June 3 and taken to Rukowo base in Mushamba village.

"They beat me all night with sticks and sjamboks (rhino-hide whips) until I passed out. When I regained consciousness the following day, I was made to sign a document denouncing MDC and I was also forced to hand over party regalia," he said; "all this was done in front of the whole village."

Over the weekend, President Mugabe announced charges of treason against top MDC leaders, including Tsvangirai, and hinted that he would watch for "sellouts" within his own ranks.

"We are the custodians of Zimbabwe's legacy," Mugabe was quoted by the state-owned Sunday Mail newspaper. "We will pass this on to those we know are fully aware of the party's ideology, those who value the country's legacy."

Sibanda, for his part, shrugs off charges of human rights violations, saying, "MDC started the violence, not us. Our people only act in self-defense." And he defends the use of force, both in taking away land from the 300 white farmers remaining in Zimbabwe, and also in taking away companies owned by whites. "We now want to assume control of companies," he says. "We want to empower our blacks. We have a lot of smart, educated people, who can be captains of industry. That's the first step to recovery – black economic empowerment." The current economic crisis, with an estimated 400,000 percent inflation rate, he says, "is just a passing phase."

To some former ZANU-PF members, Sibanda's words are mere bluster. Dumiso Dabengwa, a former intelligence chief under Mugabe, says that the "so-called war veterans," can be easily controlled. "There is no genuine war veteran that is going to totally support Mugabe," he says. The true war veterans have families and have suffered the same economic distress that most Zimbabweans have suffered, he says. "They are not the type to run around and harass people in the name of politics."

• Two reporters, in Bulawayo and Harare, contributed to this report. Their names are being withheld for security reasons.

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