Opposition says government unleashed violence after Zimbabwe's election

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Opponents of President Robert Mugabe accused his regime Tuesday of unleashing thugs to attack opposition supporters and seizing white-owned farms in an attempt to retain power. They called on other African powers to intervene.

Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe for 28 years, has virtually conceded that he did not win March 29 elections and appeared to be campaigning for an expected runoff against Morgan Tsvangirai by intimidating foes and fanning racial tensions.

Tendai Biti, secretary-general of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, said he feared more violence unless the African Union and the Southern African Development Community step in.

"We are concerned by the deafening silence in the region," Biti told reporters. "I say to our brothers and sisters across the continent, don't wait for dead bodies in the streets of Harare."

Election results remained secret, and a High Court judge heard an urgent opposition petition Tuesday to force their publication. The hearing resumes today.

Biti said there had been "massive violence" since the elections in traditional ruling party strongholds that voted for the opposition this time. Ruling party militants, used in the past to intimidate government opponents, were being rearmed, he said.

"There's been a complete militarization and a complete rearming of mobs who led the terror in 2000 and 2002," he said of previous election campaigns.

Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu denied the accusations.

There had been "no violence whatsoever," he said. "They are concocting things. It is peaceful."

Reports that people have been beaten and their homes torched have circulated in the capital in recent days. They could not be confirmed because of the danger of traveling to the affected areas.

About 60 white farmers have been forced off their land since Saturday, said Mike Clark of the Commercial Farmers' Union.

"The situation is escalating very rapidly," said union president Trevor Gifford.

The lack of election results "has paralyzed the country. No one is going to work, everything is at a standstill," Biti said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the electoral commission to issue the election results "expeditiously and with transparency."

Mugabe's ruling party has called for a recount and a further delay in the release of results.

Police said they arrested five electoral officials on charges of tampering with the results, giving Mugabe some 4,993 fewer votes than were cast for him, the state-controlled newspaper The Herald reported. It said the alleged fraud occurred in four districts.

The London-based International Bar Association said the arrests "reinforce the suspicion held by many observers that the ruling party is engaged in an elaborate ploy to discredit the entire first round of the presidential election."

It said the electoral officials were illegally being denied access to lawyers.

The electoral commission has already dismantled its offices, saying it finished all its work, but the results have still not been released, Biti said.

"The results are being cooked to fit the template of a runoff," said Biti, whose party maintains Tsvangirai won the election outright.

Biti accused the ruling party of trying to provoke the opposition to take to the streets. So did the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, saying civil groups were under "intense pressure" to initiate protests.

"The leadership is aware that such protest may be what President Mugabe is praying for, in that it would give him the excuse to declare a state of emergency and rule by decree," the congress said, urging its members to remain calm.

"The situation is a cliffhanger and the popular mood is explosive," it said.

The opposition has urged the international community to try to persuade Mugabe to step down.

African Union officials have been unable to get in touch with Mugabe in recent days, according to European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Over the weekend, Mugabe urged Zimbabweans to defend land previously seized from white farmers, and militants began invading some of the few remaining white-owned farms. Such seizures started in 2000 after Mugabe lost a referendum designed to entrench his presidential powers.

Uys van der Westhuizen, a white farmer, said he fled his tobacco farm in northern Centenary on Monday with his wife and four children after about 150 young thugs invaded, armed with machetes and sticks and beating drums.

"These guys pitched up at 6 o'clock and basically told us to get out," he said.

Van der Westhuizen said his farm staff told him the intruders left Tuesday after hearing the police were coming. He planned to check on the farm Wednesday.

Mugabe's land reform was supposed to take large commercial farms -- much of Zimbabwe's most fertile land -- owned by about 4,500 whites and redistribute it to poor blacks. Instead, he gave the land to ruling party leaders, security chiefs, relatives and friends.

The land redistribution destroyed the agricultural sector and sent the economy into free fall. Today, a third of Zimbabweans depend on international food handouts, and another third have fled the country.

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