Intimidation mounts in Zimbabwe as police ban rallies

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The Independent Online

Robert Mugabe's government banned all political rallies in Zimbabwe yesterday as tension and intimidation mounted over the still-unannounced results of the presidential election held two weeks ago today.

Police claimed they did not have the manpower to deal with political gatherings when many of their members were still guarding ballot boxes and others were posted in urban areas to prevent violence of the kind that broke out after Kenya's recent election. A police spokes-man, Wayne Bvudzijena, said there was no need for rallies, because the elections were over.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) yesterday called for a general strike to take place on Tuesday, issuing a statement which urged "transporters, workers, vendors and everyone" to heap pressure on the authorities by refusing to work. They also said that Mr Mugabe was suppressing the result because he lost decisively to their leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, and called the police announcement confirmation that Zimbabwe was now a police state.

"It's another step towards the declaration of a state of emergency," Nelson Chamisa, an MDC spokesman, told Associated Press. "In fact I would say we are already in an unofficial state of emergency."

David Coltart, an opposition senator, accused Mr Mugabe of staging a "quiet coup" by refusing to publish the election results, while South African monitoring groups said the uncertainty over who was in charge of the country meant Zimbabwe was in effect under "military control".

The ruling Zanu-PF party, which lost control of the legislature in last month's elections, has implicitly acknowledged that Mr Tsvangirai also came out ahead in the presidential vote, but claims he fell short of an overall majority, making a second round necessary. The MDC says its candidate won outright, and has refused to take part in a second round, believing it will be delayed while Zanu-PF launches a campaign of intimidation in areas where opposition support was shown to be strong.

Gangs of Mugabe loyalists, known as "green bombers" from the colour of their T-shirts and tracksuits, have been touring rural areas, forcing villagers to attend meetings where they are warned of the consequences if they fail to support Zanu-PF next time. At some, MDC supporters have been savagely beaten.

The huts of 15 families were burnt to the ground yesterday by the Zanu-PF militia at Mount Panis Farm in Centenary, north of Harare. Some of the villagers were also assaulted while others fled to the mountains.

Another target of intimidation has been Zimbabwe's dwindling band of white farmers, a favourite scapegoat of Mr Mugabe, who accuses them of being agents of British imperialism. In a time-worn tactic, white farms have been invaded in the past week by groups claiming to be landless veterans of the liberation war, although most are too young to have taken part. At least two more farms were seized yesterday, endangering the livelihoods of dozens of their black workers. The invasions have also hit Zimbabwe's food supply system.

Genuine liberation war veterans have in fact sided with the opposition. An organisation called Zimbabwe Liberators Platform (ZLP), which represents former senior guerrilla commanders, criticised Mr Mugabe for the "inexplicable failure" to announce the election results.

Mr Mugabe said the veterans should "do the honourable thing and eat humble pie and leave the people of Zimbabwe in peace".

In the towns a mood of uncertainty has taken hold as Zimbabweans wait to see whether today's summit of regional leaders in Lusaka, and the promised High Court decision on Monday regarding the MDC's attempt to force publication of the election results, bring decisive change.

The streets of Bulawayo, the second city, were unusually quiet yesterday, although a queue formed at a bakery which had supplies of bread. "Many people are staying away from work because nobody knows what is happening," said one resident.

Government offices and factories in Harare were also hit by the uncertainty. "We cannot keep our production lines going in this atmosphere. We need some sort of closure on the elections. Thirty percent of our employees are staying home," said one Harare executive. Contacts between businesses and government officials were at a standstill, he said.