Fears are mounting in Zimbabwe for the lives of more than 40 opposition officials and human rights activists who have been abducted as part of a renewed crackdown by the regime in Harare. At least two more members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change have disappeared in the past week, along with a freelance investigative reporter.
"The abductions are increasing and it now seems to be happening nationwide," Nelson Chamisa, an MDC spokesman,said yesterday.
The operation, codenamed Chimumumu according to sources in the army, aims to eliminate political opponents and remove human rights monitors. The kidnappings follow a pattern familiar from the past two years of political intimidation, where key middle- and lower-ranking officials are "disappeared" in an attempt to terrorise or destabilise opponents of the ruling party. Among those taken in the past month are Chris Dlamini, the head of security for the MDC, and Jestina Mukoko, the director of Zimbabwe Peace Project. The ruling party and security services have denied any part in the abductions.
Mr Dlamini was amongst the first to be abducted this month. Under normal circumstances he would have been the MDC's spokesman about such disappearances. His daughter, Victoria, has travelled from South Africa and is refusing to leave the country until her father's fate is known. She said the family have received no help from the police. "I don't know who to talk to at the moment. This is an incredibly tough time for us. By now we just want to know if he is alive or dead," she said.
Repeated appeals, including lawyers' petitions and, in the case of Ms Mukoko, a high court order, have failed to force authorities to release details of where the abductees are being held.
Kerry Kay, the MDC's welfare secretary, said that with each passing day hope they will be found alive is fading.
Monitors including Human Rights Watch and The Independent have documented hundreds of cases of politically inspired disappearances and false imprisonment, torture and murder.
Police claim they do not know the whereabouts of Mr Dlamini, or any of the other 41 missing people. However, a "confession" by Mr Dlamini is reported to have been included in a dossier of evidence of foreign conspiracies against Harare that the Zimbabwean government handed to the SADC, a development bloc of African states. Robert Mugabe's administration has accused neighbouring Botswana of setting up camps to train guerrillas to topple his government. The 84-year-old President has also said that Britain is planning to invade its former colony. The "confession" and other alleged evidence has been dismissed by the SADC. "They are so predictable it is frightening," said Ms Kay.
The Mugabe regime has used similar tactics in the past and even produced a grainy video purported to be evidence in support of treason charges brought in 2002 against the MDC's leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. The voices on the tape were largely inaudible and it turned out to have been produced by an Israeli conman. After an 18-month trial that prevented Mr Tsvangirai from campaigning during the run-up to the 2002 election, he was eventually acquitted. Meanwhile, the kidnapping of a respected journalist, nicknamed "Saddam", has sent many of his colleagues into hiding. Shadreck Manyere has not been seen for more than a week. His wife said he had received a call at their home outside Harare and had gone to meet a contact.
Plainclothes police appeared at her house in the early hours of last Sunday morning demanding to search the building and claiming her husband had been involved in an accident. They were refused entry but returned with a search warrant and ransacked the house, taking a computer, video camera and other material.
The pattern of abductions suggests a systematic effort to close down any information-gathering about government activities, either by the opposition, journalists or human rights groups.
However, dissident factions within the army are presenting a new problem for the government. Unprecedented clashes this month between soldiers and police have been followed by more skirmishes as the army is being affected by the economic crisis.
One soldier, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that off-duty colleagues had attacked and beaten up the brother of the Central Bank governor, Gideon Gono, in a case of mistaken identity. Mr Gono, who travels with a heavy security detail, is widely hated in the country for the wealth he has accumulated and his stoking of the unprecedented hyperinflation that has impoverished most of his compatriots.
There have been unconfirmed reports that some of those abducted are being held at a military base in Kariba, near the border with Zambia.
Mr Tsvangirai, who is in Botswana, has given a deadline of the end of the year for the release of the abductees, otherwise his party will "suspend" power-sharing talks with the government.