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Zimbabwe leader warns of violence if he loses vote

Saturday, June 14, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- President Robert Mugabe said Friday that his supporters are ready to fight if the opposition wins an upcoming presidential runoff election. The campaign already has seen widespread violence against government opponents.

"I'm even prepared to join the fight," the 84-year-old Mugabe told a conference of his party's youth wing.

Morgan Tsvangirai finished first in a field of four in the first round but failed to win the majority needed to avoid a runoff.

"We can't allow the British to dominate us through their puppets," said Mugabe, returning to a campaign theme of portraying Tsvangirai as a pawn of Western powers, a charge the opposition denies.

"A vote for the (opposition) is a vote for the British to have once again not just a foothold but real power."

A High Court judge, meanwhile, ordered police to bring No. 2 opposition leader Tendai Biti to court Saturday and explain why he should not be immediately released, according to opposition lawyer Selby Hwacha.

Biti was arrested Thursday upon returning to Zimbabwe from neighboring South Africa. The United States was among the governments that said the arrest of the top aide to Tsvangirai only deepened concerns the runoff would not be free and fair.

Since picking up Biti at the airport Thursday, police have refused to say where he was being held or when they might bring him to court. They have said he faces a charge of treason, which can carry the death penalty.

Tsvangirai, speaking on the campaign trail Friday, called the charge Biti faces "frivolous."

"Tendai has not committed any crime, he has not committed any offense to warrant the arrest," the candidate said.

The party said Tsvangirai himself was released overnight after being detained by police.

Tsvangirai was stopped twice by police as he tried to campaign Thursday, according to the party, which said he was held for about two hours the first time and late into the night the second time before being released. Such incidents have become common as Tsvangirai attempts to reach out to voters, and the opposition says 66 of its supporters have been killed.

In 2004, Tsvangirai was acquitted after a treason trial that lasted more than a year.

Botswana, a fellow member of the Southern African Development Community, was the first neighbor to condemn Biti's arrest. Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had summoned the Zimbabwean ambassador to express its concern.

"Botswana is alarmed by these arrests and detentions as they disrupt electoral activities of key players and intimidate the electorate thus undermining the process of holding a free, fair and democratic election," said Clifford Maribe, ministry spokesman.

It was unusually strong language from a fellow African government. Zimbabwe's neighbors, particularly regional power South Africa, have for the most part refused to confront Mugabe.

The arrest of Biti and police harassment of Tsvangirai are the latest examples of efforts by Mugabe's government to defeat the opposition. The harassment has included using security forces to confiscate a large U.S. food donation and giving it to Mugabe supporters in a country where many people are poor.

The United States, long a sharp critic of Mugabe, said Thursday that whatever pressure the neighbors had so far brought to bear had been ineffective. It called for immediate action by the U.N. Security Council.

News emerged that a 20-ton shipment of U.S.-donated grain, beans and oil being sent to a school in eastern Zimbabwe was hijacked by security forces and then passed out to Mugabe backers at a rally last week.

In Washington, officials said the United States, which now holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council, would try to raise the Zimbabwe issue next week.

U.S. Ambassador James McGee said Friday the clampdown on aid work has left some people surviving on less than one meal a day.

"The situation right now is bad and it's continuing to get worse," McGee told reporters in a conference call from Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. "If this continues much beyond the elections, it will be disastrous for Zimbabwe."

Aid group World Vision, which has projects across the country, appealed to the government Friday to allow delivery of basic humanitarian assistance by reversing the suspension.

"As a child-focused organization, we are particularly concerned for the close to 400,000 children we would have assisted this month through school-feeding and our ongoing development work," said Wilfred Mlay, vice president for Africa for World Vision. "We hold grave concerns for the 1.6 million orphans and vulnerable children across the country who will now not receive critical assistance from humanitarian agencies operating in the country."

World Vision said the suspension was keeping more than 30 groups from delivering food and other aid. It said up to 4 million people are in need of aid.


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