'Assassination attempt' on Mugabe henchman

Head of Zimbabwe's air force recovering in hospital after ambush near his home, state media reports

President Robert Mugabe is planning to declare a state of emergency in Zimbabwe, the opposition said yesterday, after what the government claims was an assassination attempt on the head of the air force.

Perence Shiri, one of Mr Mugabe's inner circle, was shot in the arm on Saturday, claim state media reports that surfaced yesterday. Attacks of this kind are almost unheard of in Zimbabwe, where the opposition Movement for Democratic Change has insisted on using peaceful means. There has been no independent verification of the shooting.

A day earlier, the Zimbabwe government accused neighbouring Botswana, whose President, Seretse Ian Khama, is among the few African leaders to openly criticise Mr Mugabe, of training rebels to launch a coup attempt. The accusations were strenuously denied, but opposition leaders fear they will be used as justification for another violent crackdown on political opponents.

A senior opposition leader, Tendai Biti, said the ruling party was getting ready to declare a state of emergency as a prelude to outlawing the MDC. "We have no doubt they are going to declare a state of emergency," he told the Zimbabwean agency, Newsreel.

Air Marshal Shiri was reportedly ambushed on the way to his farm, which was seized from a white farmer in 2000, and is now recovering in a Harare hospital. The Home Affairs Minister, Kembo Mohadi, said this had been an attempt to destabilise the country. "The attack on Air Marshal Shiri appears to be a build-up of terror attacks targeting high-profile persons, government officials, government establishments and public transportation systems," Mr Mohadi told the state-controlled Herald newspaper. On Monday, the Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, was quoted as saying he had "compelling evidence" that MDC members were being trained in Botswana to fight.

As the tensions rise, the Zimbabwe people are in the grip of what opposition Senator David Coltart has called the "perfect humanitarian storm". A cholera outbreak has claimed at least 1,000 lives, the UN says, with officials from Zimbabwe's health ministry privately saying the real figure could be at least five times higher. With the collapse of the health system, Zimbabweans have been flocking across the borders to South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique in desperate search of medical assistance.

Mr Mugabe, 84 and the only leader Zimbabwe has known, claims cholera is being used as a cover for foreign intervention, and one of his ministers accused the UK and US of using "chemical warfare" against the country, already facing civil disaster. The economy has shrunk faster than any peacetime economy in history, leading to unprecedented hyperinflation and the meltdown of all industries. Despite the crises, Mr Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party have refused to honour a power-sharing agreement with the opposition, reluctantly signed after losing elections in March.

The government has consistently accused the opposition of terror attacks but has provided no evidence. Rights groups and journalists, including The Independent, have documented hundreds of cases of torture, coercion, murder and false imprisonment of opponents of the regime. Mr Biti said civil rights activists and MDC members had been abducted and tortured to obtain fake confessions of involvement in training camps in Botswana. The state was preparing to release video footage of these "confessions" to justify a fresh crackdown.

In recent weeks, more than two dozen leading critics of the government have been abducted. Zimbabwe's own high court has called for Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, who was taken from her home in Harare, to be released. Police denied detaining her and claim not to know her whereabouts.

South Africa's former president, Thabo Mbeki, mediated a power sharing agreement during the summer but Mr Mugabe has ignored the terms and tried to retain all meaningful authority with the ruling party. The political stalemate has dragged on for months and the MDC leader and would-be prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai is being prevented from re-entering the country because the government refuses to renew his passport.

Hopes that Mr Mbeki's arch-rival and leader of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, would take a harder line on Mr Mugabe have so far been disappointed.