Mugabe runs secret camps to train killers

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President Robert Mugabe's government has set up secret camps across the country in which thousands of youths are taught how to torture and kill, according to an investigation to be broadcast tonight.

The BBC says it established the existence of the camps during covert filming in Zimbabwe, discovering thousands of youngsters each year being trained to kill in the name of the ruling Zanu-PF party.

The camps, believed to number six, appear to be part of a wider Mugabe campaign to wipe out the opposition in next year's parliamentary elections. One of the camp's commanders told the BBC's Panorama programme that youths in his camp had been sent out to kill suspected supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change.

President Mugabe has visited the camps, the BBC says, and the government claims they are job training centres. Ministry insiders were quoted by the corporation as saying that the government knew what went on at the centres.

But former recruits to the camps have told of a horrific training programme that "breaks down" teenagers before encouraging them to commit atrocities. The youth militia are warned never to speak about their experiences, and many refuse to be identified when talking about what went on, the BBC says.

However, one girl, Debbie, said she was kidnapped and forced into a camp, where she was raped. The BBC said it seemed that for many camp members the training began with their rape. Debbie said she was raped three times on the first night and that the abuse did not stop there. She told Panorama: "I was raped again at night and they said no one can complain because it's part of training." She claims an 11-year-old girl, with whom she shared a blanket, was also raped repeatedly. Food at the camps was often scarce and youths were beaten until they succumbed to orders.

The BBC said it had put the allegations to Zimbabwe's government but so far politicians had refused to respond.

Revelation of the camps comes as MDC leaders arrived in South Africa to persuade the country, including the ANC, to re-think policies on Zimbabwe after Mr Mugabe last week slammed the door on talks with the MDC.

Opposition leaders warned they might boycott next year's parliamentary election after it emerged that the Mugabe government had withdrawn its request made to the United Nations for electoral funding help. The UN had wanted to investigate the country's human rights abuses.

The MDC maintains that it will be futile to contest the elections if there are draconian conditions similar to those that existed during Zimbabwe's presidential election of March 2002.