Death toll in campaign of intimidation against MDC supporters 'close to 500'

The true death toll in the campaign of terror being led by Robert Mugabe's government in Zimbabwe is close to 500, according to doctors' groups and opposition sources. The estimated number of killings had been thought to be 86 but new evidence collected from rural areas witnessing the worst of the intimidation has prompted a five-fold increase in the tally.

"The violence is increasing, even after we pulled out of the run-off," said one opposition researcher, who preferred not to be named.

Doctors' groups have documented more than 100 deaths but are so overburdened with new cases that they have been unable to update their records fully. The collapse of the health system over the past decade and the exodus of doctors and nurses has left them unable to cope with the current "warlike" conditions.

Friends of Zimbabwe, a civil-society organisation, said that six people per day were being killed in a campaign that they believe has already claimed 500 lives.

The government blames political violence on the opposition party, the Movement For Democratic Change, but independent observers, African poll monitors and diplomats say the killings and torture are orchestrated by the ruling Zanu-PF, aided by the security services. In rural areas and increasingly in towns and cities, Zanu militia have murdered, tortured and intimidated thousands of suspected MDC supporters.

Sources said some initial beatings had been made worse by refusing victims medical treatment. In other cases the injured had their wounds poisoned with weed killer, and were left to an agonising death.

The opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who pulled out of the run-off on Sunday, should be recognised as president-elect, according to three leading South African legal experts. David Unterhalter and Wim Trengove, who specialise in constitutional court issues, and Max du Plessis, an associate professor of law, said the delay to the run-off, which should have occurred within 21 days of the 29 March first round, made Friday's vote null and void. This could open the way for foreign governments to recognise Mr Tsvangirai.