JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Pro-government militants in Zimbabwe have launched a "witch hunt" for suspected opposition supporters in the wake of that country's presidential election, according to human rights activists and opposition leaders.
The activists said Thursday that ruling party militants had killed four supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change since the election that returned longtime President Robert Mugabe to power earlier this month and that hundreds of others had been chased from their homes. In other incidents, opposition supporters have been abducted and scores of their homes have been torched and their possessions stolen, the activists said.
The assaults came in reprisal for refusal to vote for Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party, MDC officials and human rights groups said. They charge that the government is trying to eliminate any political opposition.
"It's extremely serious," said Nkanyiso Maqeda, an information officer for the MDC. He spoke by phone from the Zimbabwean capital, Harare. "It's actually a calculated retribution action by the government. It's not something coincidental. It's not something spontaneous. It's something planned."
Government officials dismissed the charges of a state-sponsored witch hunt as ludicrous.
"The only truth is that the MDC are bad losers," said George Charamba, Zimbabwe's secretary of state for information and publicity. "Because they lost the elections, they are trying to win sympathy on the basis of claims and accusations."
Many local and foreign observer groups have condemned the election as deeply flawed and rigged to guarantee Mugabe's victory. Mugabe's main challenger, the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai, called the vote "daylight robbery."
The Commonwealth, consisting of Britain and its former colonies, has suspended Zimbabwe from the organization for a year, citing the "high level of politically motivated violence" surrounding the vote.
Forty people, mainly opposition supporters, have been killed in political violence since the beginning of the year.
Opposition officials said their polling agents were the main targets. The names of polling agents representing the various political parties were published in newspapers before the election, the officials said.
The situation "has intensified and become more focused, in that now they are actively looking for MDC supporters and are hunting them accordingly," said Frances Lovemore, a doctor with Armani Trust, a leading human rights group in Zimbabwe. "They are on a door-to-door witch hunt. It's dreadful at the moment."
Evidence of Opposition Supporters on the Run
Lovemore said her group, which provides medical treatment to victims of political violence, has evidence that about 1,250 MDC supporters are on the run.
Lovemore said she has treated a variety of injuries, including soles that were beaten raw, whipped buttocks, lacerated backs and ruptured eardrums.
Munyaradzi Bidi of ZimRights, a human rights group based in Harare, said last week that members of the Zimbabwean election observer team, drawn largely from church groups and civic society, had been "threatened for having taken part in the observing."
Also of mounting concern for opposition activists is the continued existence of so-called terror camps--in places such as school halls and community centers--where youth brigades with the ZANU-PF, or Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, allegedly gather to stage attacks on opposition supporters.
Government official Charamba said that reports by local human rights groups couldn't be trusted because the organizations are notoriously pro-MDC and therefore the information they give is unlikely to be objective.
"Don't forget who the Armani Trust is. Don't forget who the Zimbabwe Human Rights Network is. They are part of the propaganda infrastructure of the MDC . . . of the British government," Charamba said.
Mugabe has accused the opposition of being a puppet of Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler. He accuses the MDC of seeking to recolonize Zimbabwe by handing power back to the country's minority white population, many of whom are British descendants and have traditionally made a living in Zimbabwe as industrialists or commercial farmers.
It isn't surprising, therefore, that white farmers say there has also been a surge in violence against them and their laborers since the election ended.
A white farmer was killed in the week after Mugabe's March 17 inauguration, bringing to 10 the number of white farmers killed in the two years since the government launched its controversial "fast track" land reform program that seeks to wrest land from whites for redistribution to landless blacks.
About 4,500 white farmers own 70% of the country's best farmland. The government wants to seize at least 20.5 million acres of the 29.6 million acres now in white hands. Not all the farms have been taken, but veterans of Zimbabwe's independence war and other pro-government militants have illegally occupied some of them.