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Foreign reporters detained in Zimbabwe

Friday, April 4, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Intruders ransacked offices of the main opposition party and police detained foreign journalists Thursday in an ominous sign that President Robert Mugabe might turn to intimidation and violence in trying to stave off an electoral threat to his 28-year rule.

Earlier, Mugabe apparently launched his campaign for an expected run-off presidential ballot even before the official results of Saturday's election were announced, with state media portraying the opposition as divided and controlled by former colonial ruler Britain.

Five days after the vote, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission still had not released results on the presidential election despite increasing international pressure, including from former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who recently mediated an end to Kenya's postelection violence.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change already asserted its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, won the presidency outright, but said it was prepared to compete in any run-off.

The police raids came a day after official results showed Mugabe's party had lost control of parliament's 210-member lower house. The election commission was slow on the 60 elected seats in the Senate, releasing the first returns late Thursday that gave five seats each to the opposition and ruling party.

Tsvangirai tried Thursday to reassure security chiefs who vowed a week ago not to serve anyone but Mugabe, according to a source close to the opposition leader. But an agreed meeting with seven generals was canceled when the officers said that they had been ordered not to attend and that they would be under surveillance, the source said.

The man, who requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, gave The Associated Press a copy of a letter signed by Tsvangirai outlining "MDC guarantees to the uniformed forces of Zimbabwe." It was given to the generals earlier in the day, he said.

The letter promises generous retirement packages for those unwilling to serve an MDC government. It also promises not to take back farms given to officers under Mugabe's land reform program, except in cases in which an officer got several farms or if land was being neglected.

It was not clear who ordered the generals not to attend the meeting, but the fact that some senior officers apparently were willing to meet with Tsvangirai underlined reports of rifts within the highly politicized upper echelons of Zimbabwe's security forces.

Diplomats in Harare and at the United Nations said Mugabe was planning to declare a 90-day delay to a presidential run-off to give security forces time to clamp down. The law requires a run-off be held within 21 days of an election, but Mugabe could change that with a presidential decree, a Western diplomat in Harare said.

A diplomat at the U.N. Security Council, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said if the run-off was put off the council might have to take up the issue.

MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti said hotel rooms used as offices by the opposition at a Harare hotel were ransacked by intruders he believed were either police or agents of the feared Central Intelligence Organization.

"Mugabe has started a crackdown," Biti told The Associated Press. "It is quite clear he has unleashed a war."

Biti said the raid at the Meikles Hotel targeted "certain people ... including myself." He said Tsvangirai was "safe" but had canceled plans for a news conference. Tsvangirai was arrested and severely beaten by police a year ago after a banned opposition rally.

In a further signal of the government's hardening mood, heavily armed riot police surrounded and entered a Harare hotel housing foreign correspondents and took five away, lawyers said.

Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, said Times correspondent Barry Bearak, a winner of a 2002 Pulitzer Prize, was among them. The identities of the other reporters hadn't been determined.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists expressed alarm and called for the reporters' immediate release.

Zimbabwe lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa said two of the journalists were jailed and told they would be charged Friday with practicing journalism without licenses. She said the other three were released.

Mugabe has ruled since his guerrilla army helped force an end to white minority rule and bring about an independent Zimbabwe in 1980, but his popularity has been battered by an economic freefall that followed the often-violent seizures of white-owned commercial farms in 2000.

Seemingly laying the groundwork for a Mugabe run-off campaign, the state-run Herald newspaper said the ruling ZANU-PF party was running neck and neck with the opposition in the vote count, and it highlighted divisions among Mugabe's foes.

The Herald also charged that Tsvangirai would give farmland back to whites.

The opposition leader has not said that, but has promised to make an equitable distribution of land to people who know how to farm. Mugabe claimed his land reform was to benefit poor blacks, but gave most seized farms to relatives, friends and cronies, and agricultural production has plunged.

Mugabe has sought to deflect criticism over widespread shortages of food, fuel and other goods by blaming former colonizer Britain and other Western nations. But Western sanctions involve only visa bans and frozen bank accounts for Mugabe and about 100 of his allies.

Independent election observers say their projections based on election results posted at a representative sample of local polling stations indicate Tsvangirai won the most votes in the presidential contest, but not enough to avoid a run-off.

Mugabe, who appeared on state television Thursday for the first time since the elections, was said to be pondering conflicting advice from his advisers on whether to quietly cede power or face a run-off, both humiliating prospects for the 84-year-old president.

Diplomats said Thursday's events indicated he might be considering of a third option: declaring a state of emergency and suppressing the opposition.

Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said Mugabe was ready for a run-off.

"President Mugabe is going to fight. He is not going anywhere. He has not lost," Matonga said on British Broadcasting Corp. "We are going to go hard and fight and get the majority required."

Reports said leaders of the ruling party scheduled a meeting Friday to discuss the run-off. Nathan Shamuyarira, the party's secretary for information and publicity, said "we have many meetings tomorrow," but declined details.

International concern mounted about the continuing delays in releasing official election results.

"We need to see an official tally, see it soon and have assurances made that this is actually a correct counting of the votes," U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.

Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, said the delay was dangerous and urged officials "to declare the election results faithfully and accurately."

"We live in an open world today and indeed the eyes of the world are on Zimbabwe, on its electoral commission, on its president," Annan said. "I urge them to do the right thing ... The election results should be released now."

The election commission said it was still receiving ballot boxes from the provinces, raising questions about where the votes had been. The opposition has charged Mugabe planned to rig the results, and Western election observers have accused him of stealing previous elections.

According to official results, a total of 2,405,147 valid votes were cast in Saturday's parliamentary contests, supporting opposition charges that the voter roll of 5.9 million names had been hugely inflated with dead and fictitious people.

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