'Freedom fighters' may be Mugabe trap

Opposition warns that new resistance movement may be a set-up by the regime as excuse for further repression
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The Independent Online

Britain and the official opposition in Zimbabwe are steering clear of a shadowy new resistance group called the Zimbabwe Freedom Movement (ZFM), amid fears that it may be a trap laid by President Robert Mugabe for enemies such as the British gay rights activist, Peter Tatchell.

Most new guerrilla movements announce themselves by claiming responsibility for an attack or act of sabotage that captures media attention. The ZFM, however, made its debut earlier this month at London's ICA, one of Britain's premier arts venues, where Mr Tatchell launched the group by showing a video.

Apparently shot inside Zimbabwe, the tape shows an interview with two balaclava- wearing men -- Commander "Charles Black Mamba" and his deputy, whose nom de guerre is Nthuthko Fezela -- in which they outline the aims of the ZFM. They say Mr Mugabe should be removed from power to resolve Zimbabwe's problems. Although their intention is not to kill the President, but to take him alive in a bloodless coup so that he can "receive the truth", they warn that if Mr Mugabe does not want the ZFM to resort to the use of force, the next move is up to him.

But the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), whose leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is on trial for his life on treason charges, has reacted sceptically to the ZFM's appearance. The ruling Zanu-PF had used "pseudo-dissidents" in the 1980s, warned David Coltart, the MDC's justice spokesman. "I suspect that these are people from the military and the Central Intelligence Organisation," he said. "You have to ask whose interests this serves ... Mugabe will make the most of the propaganda from this sort of thing by blaming the British for meddling in Zimbabwe's affairs."

The main evidence produced against Mr Tsvangirai is a secret video which his lawyers say has been crudely doctored to make him appear to be plotting to assassinate Mr Mugabe. This has fuelled MDC suspicions about the ZFM video. Following Mr Tatchell's launch of the new group, Chris Mullin, a Foreign Office minister, said informal approaches to Britain, believed to come from the ZFM, had been firmly rejected. The MDC's secretary general, Welshman Ncube, told The Independent on Sunday: "If it [the ZFM] is not a deliberate creation to discredit us, then it is a group of people who really don't know who they are playing with, because it's a very dangerous game and one which will cause a lot of hardship for people on the ground."

Opposition groups fear another crackdown by Mr Mugabe's regime may be immi- nent as Zimbabwe stumbles into further political and economic chaos. Last week police and paramilitaries began confiscating foreign currency indiscriminately from travellers - a desperate measure which state media explained as necessary to buy imported fuel for farm vehicles, but which has been more widely interpreted as funding military fuel stockpiles in anticipation of civil unrest. Some believe the advent of the ZFM could be used as an excuse for repression.

Mr Tatchell, who has twice attempted to make a citizen's arrest of Mr Mugabe on visits to Europe - he was beaten up by the leader's security men on one occasion - insists that the ZFM is genuine.

"They have been in contact with me for over 18 months, and have cautiously delayed their announcement several times to concur with their aim of patiently creating underground cells," he said.

Mr Tatchell noted that the regime's officials had belittled the ZFM: if the movement was a government set-up, he said, the regime's officials would have played up the threat rather than disparaging it.

Mr Tatchell is a particular bête noire of Mr Mugabe, who has likened gays to "pigs and dogs" and claims Zimbabwe is being destabilised in a conspiracy orchestrated by the British government of "gay gangsters", in league with international capital, white Zimbabweans and black opposition fifth-columnists.