A wave of fresh violence and claims of at least five deaths in recent political clashes in Zimbabwe prompted charges yesterday that President Robert Mugabe is orchestrating a reign of terror in a desperate attempt to cling to power as elections loom.
As news emerged of a three-day hostage-taking siege on a white-owned farm, a wave of arson attacks was reported. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) claimed five of its supporters - including a pregnant woman - had died in attacks in the run-up to the country's delayed elections. It claimed that dozens of its supporters have been forced to flee their homes following a series of brutal assaults and rapes.
The MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, said: "This is an orchestrated plan by government to induce fear. If it is an indication of things to come, God help this country. To talk of free and fair elections in this atmosphere is a fallacy."
Tensions ran high across the country as reports of violence filtered through the official news blackout. Armed with knives and clubs, at least 60 squatters on a farm 100km (62 miles) north of the capital, Harare, maintained their siege in which a white farmer and his wife have been taken hostage. Telephone contact was lost with the farm as the line was apparently severed and the squatters chased reporters away from the farm, lashing out with golf clubs and axes.
Petrol-bomb attacks on MDC-linked property were reported throughout the country, including the house of Biggie Chigovera, a parliamentary candidate, and the home of an opposition leader in a northern suburb of the capital.
Militants of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) were also reported to have ambushed eight police officers and taken their automatic rifles. Police forces across the country appeared powerless to help. One policeman was shot dead on Tuesday in a struggle between black squatters on a white-owned farm
President Mugabe has repeatedly refused to condemn the farm invasions and police have been ordered not to implement court orders for the eviction of the squatters.
According to the Commercial Farmers' Union - which represents 4,500 farmers whose land is the target of the current occupations - nearly 1,000 farms had, by yesterday, been invaded and 504 were currently occupied. The invaders, who are sometimes referred to as liberation veterans but are generally unemployed youths, began their campaign after the government lost a referendum in February which would have legitimised land-grabs of commercial farms.
President Mugabe , who is fighting for his political survival, said on a flight home from the EU-Africa summit in Cairo that the parliamentary elections would now take place on 25 or 26 May.
He had also agreed to mediation by the president of Nigeria in the bitter row between Zimbabwe and Britain over the seizures by his supporters of white-owned land.
But opposition groups fear the president, who has led Zimbabwe into its worst economic crisis since independence and embroiled the country in a war in neighbouring Congo, is deliberately orchestrating violence to give him a reason to impose a state of emergency, which would allow him to delay the ballot.
Today, after an emergency Zanu-PF caucus - a closed meeting of ruling party MPs - parliament is expected to vote on a constitutional amendment, proposed despite the referendum defeat, which would permit the uncompensated acquisition of land. The move is widely seen as a pre-election ploy as mechanisms already exist for land resettlement.
Britain says it has contingency plans to take in over 20,000 Zimbabwean whites with British passports should the violence against them worsen.