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Abductions of Zimbabwe activists could ruin talks

Twenty activists from the Movement for Democratic Change opposition party have been abducted since October. Their whereabouts are still unknown.

By Scott Baldauf – Staff Writer, a correspondent / December 18, 2008

Desperation mounts: Children and their parents on Sunday picked up corn kernels spilled on the side of the road in Masvingo, Zimbabwe, by trucks carrying maize imported from South Africa.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

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JOHANNESBURG, South AFrica; and HARARE, Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe's chances of resolving its eight-month-long political stalemate and patching together a power-sharing government seems to be in jeopardy after a spate of armed abductions of key opposition and human rights activists.

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Twenty activists for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party and four activists for the Zimbabwe Peace Process human rights group have been abducted from their homes and businesses since October, in circumstances that mirror similar abductions of dozens of opposition members during national elections held last March.

Coming at a time when the MDC is under pressure to accept a power-sharing agreement with the long-ruling party of President Robert Mugabe, the ZANU-PF, these abductions have forced many MDC activists into hiding and prompted leading MDC leaders to allege a complete breakdown in trust with the ruling party.

"It puts the talks in jeopardy," says Tendai Biti, the MDC secretary general and a participant in negotiations with the ruling party.

He calls the abductions a "breach" of agreements signed between the two parties in September, when MDC and ZANU-PF agreed in principle to share power. "Zanu-PF has no respect for the documents that it signs," says Mr. Biti.

Beset by 280 million percent inflation, food and cash shortages, and a deadly outbreak of cholera, Zimbabwe is a country in desperate need of a functioning government. But a campaign of terror, which many human rights activists say bears the earmarks of similar state-sanctioned abduction campaigns of the past, could undo months of painstaking negotiations between the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai and Mr. Mugabe.

Is Mugabe sending a message?

Some experts say that may be the point.

"One of two things is happening, and they are not mutually exclusive," says Steven Friedman, a political analyst at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called. "One is that there are people within the security services who don't want there to be even a shred of a power-sharing agreement. The other is that if the Zimbabwe elite is forced to have the opposition in government at all, they [the MDC] are going to be fully aware of who is in charge."

In theory, MDC and ZANU-PF should now be allies in a coalition government, after having signed an agreement to share power last September.

The South African President Kgalema Motlanthe raised hopes of a settlement on Tuesday, saying there might be a power-sharing agreement as soon as this week, but MDC spokesmen said the talks remain in a stalemate.

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