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Tension Rises as Zimbabwe Tries to Stifle Dissent

Africa: Opposition supporters have been killed and the media harassed. Breakdown of law frightens poverty-stricken public.


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Tension is boiling over in Zimbabwe after a recent wave of attacks against the government's political opponents and the introduction of stringent laws apparently designed to entrench the ruling party's power ahead of next year's presidential poll.

The attacks targeting the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, come during a period of great instability. Past weeks have seen fresh violence against white-owned commercial farms. Harassment of the media and members of the judiciary is widespread. And a general breakdown of the rule of law is terrifying average Zimbabweans, already beaten down by poverty.

More than 100 opposition supporters and 10 white farmers have been killed within the last two years. State-sponsored killings and torture are on the rise, according to local human rights groups.

MDC officials said President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, party are behind the oppressive actions, citing their anger and frustration over not being able to suppress their toughest political challenge since coming to power in 1980.

"These are seriously desperate measures," said Gibson Sibanda, the opposition party's vice president. "They are just trying everything. They are not going to stop at anything."

The most recent attack on opposition targets came Friday with the destruction of the MDC headquarters in Bulawayo, the southern African nation's second-largest city.

Militants Hurl Stones and Gasoline Bombs

The building was stoned and hit with gasoline bombs by pro-government militants, who were protesting the killing of Cain Nkala, a ruling party ally who has helped lead violent occupations of 1,700 white-owned farms. MDC supporters avenged the destruction of their offices by burning a college owned by a former ruling party legislator and Mugabe crony.

The government says the MDC was behind Nkala's abduction and strangulation, a claim the party denies.

After Nkala's body was found in a shallow grave outside Bulawayo last week, police arrested 16 opposition activists and an MDC member of parliament on charges of murder. Two reporters for the country's only independent daily newspaper were released Tuesday after their weekend arrests on charges of involvement in an alleged plot to implicate the government in Nkala's killing.

At Nkala's funeral Sunday, Mugabe called the MDC a terrorist organization and vowed to crush it.

"The MDC and their supporters should know their days are numbered," Mugabe told the hundreds of mourners present. "The time is now up for the MDC terrorists as the world has been awakened by the death of Nkala."

MDC officials said the president's words resounded with desperation.

"It appears that Robert Mugabe and the party are completely irrational and are willing to use any means possible to stay in power," said David Coltart, the MDC's shadow justice minister and member of parliament for Bulawayo South.

MDC officials said the destruction of their headquarters would only strengthen their resolve.

"They can do these things, but certainly that cannot break the spirit of the people," said MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai as he toured the bombed-out building Monday. "If at all, they will reinforce the spirit of the people."

"Nothing they do will deter us," said Sibanda, who accompanied Tsvangirai around the site. "We've got an agenda. We've got a campaign program and we're going straight ahead with it. Our way forward is to win the presidential election and remove Mugabe and ZANU-PF from power."

The MDC nearly beat the ruling party in parliamentary polls last year, despite a violent campaign by pro-government supporters in which 31 people, mainly opposition supporters, were killed.

Supporters Sing as They Clear Wreckage

On Monday, MDC officials and supporters used pitchforks and shovels to clear the charred remains of the party's Bulawayo headquarters. Dozens of women dressed in head scarves and men in gardening overalls cleared the piles of bricks that once constituted the building's structure.

The workers sang as a Zimbabwean flag was hoisted in the property's frontyard. Supporters said graffiti painted on remaining sections of the building's shattered facade bore testimony to their determination not to be defeated: "Last Days of a Dying Horse." "Forward Ever, Backward Never." "This Crime Will Never Break Our Spirit." "End of ZANU-PF."

Such dissent is something Mugabe is determined to avoid, political analysts say.

In recent weeks, he has exercised his powers of decree with the intent, local commentators say, of ensuring his victory in the presidential race, due by April. Independent election monitors, both foreign and local, have been banned. Nongovernmental organizations are not allowed to disseminate voter education. Charities may not distribute food relief.

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