MDC supporters are murdered in Zimbabwe

The stage is set for a showdown in Zimbabwe after a high court judge yesterday rejected a petition for the result of the presidential election more than two weeks ago to be published.

The longer the delay in releasing the voting tallies, the more certain Zimbabweans, and the rest of the world, become that President Robert Mugabe lost to his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai. Preparing the ground for a run-off vote is one aspect of the ruling Zanu-PF's apparent comeback strategy.

Another tactic – the deployment of security forces, party militias and so-called "war veterans" to intimidate voters ahead of a second round presidential vote – is already well advanced. Villagers in Mr Mugabe's erstwhile heartland around Harare have been threatened, beaten and had their huts burnt. At least two supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change have been murdered.Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said it had documented at least 130 attacks on opposition or independent poll monitors.

Mr Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), insists he won the 29 March election outright, and has called for a general strike and protest marches today. The government will crack down hard on any demonstration, but previous calls by Mr Tsvangirai for mass action have met with a patchy response. In the midst of economic collapse, most Zimbabweans are struggling merely to survive, and the minority with jobs are reluctant to jeopardise them.

Discouragingly for the opposition's hopes that public indignation might sweep Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF government aside, the centre of Bulawayo was far busier yesterday than before the weekend. Uncertainty in the fortnight since the unexpected setback for Zanu-PF had brought many offices and factories to a near-standstill, but the people appear to have accepted that Mr Mugabe intends to circumvent the outcome of the election by whatever means necessary.

The theoretically independent Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) pressed ahead yesterday with plans to recount votes in 23 constituencies, all but one of them won by the combined opposition. Despite a high court order calling a halt until a hearing today, the ZEC published advertisements in newspapers listing the venues for recounts on Saturday morning.

Two weeks ago, Zanu-PF humiliatingly lost its majority in the House of Assembly, winning 97 seats to the combined opposition's 109, but would regain it if the results in nine seats or more could be reversed.

But votes in the presidential election will also be recounted, although the result has never been announced. This is unlikely to change the outcome of a race in which independent monitors reckon Mr Tsvangirai fell just short of an overall majority, but the opposition believes the aim is to narrow his lead enough for a Mugabe victory in the second round to seem credible. The already crippled economy has been dealt a further blow by fresh invasions of the country's dwindling number of white-owned farms. The Commercial Farmers' Union said more than 70 farmers had been driven away, along with hundreds of their black workers. But the opposition fears this is merely the beginning of a much wider crackdown.

The MDC says 200 military officers hand-picked for their loyalty to Zanu-PF have been dispatched around the country to take control of combined forces of police, party militias and "war veterans". In one province, dissident policemen said they had been warned by their shaken commander that they should not "be seen to be on the wrong side" during the operation to produce a second-round victory for Mr Mugabe.

Only war veterans would be allowed to carry weapons, and they would not be issued with their normal side-arms, the policemen said. This appears to support the opposition's belief that many police and soldiers are disillusioned with Zanu-PF. Their ranks are being swelled with party loyalists to ensure they obey orders.

Almost incredibly, the government is claiming to be the victim in the crisis, claiming the MDC rigged the election and that white farmers, counting on an opposition victory, were threatening to evict the people who had taken over their land. A Zanu-PF minister said they were "playing with the tail of a lion".

Mr Tsvangirai is refusing to participate in a presidential run-off, saying he won their first round and that a second would be rigged. He is having further talks in South Africa.

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