Now the opposition takes up arms in Zimbabwe

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The Independent Online

Fears of civil war in Zimbabwe escalated yesterday as it emerged that opposition supporters, frustrated by police inaction at the brutal intimidation campaign being waged by President Robert Mugabe's allies, have begun to form their own "revenge forces".

Since Mr Mugabe – the only president Zimbabwe has ever known – was pushed into second place by Morgan Tsvangirai in the first-round ballot of the presidential election, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) says more than 60 supporters have been murdered and thousands more threatened in a well-oiled operation to rig the second round of voting.

Now with less than two weeks to the crucial run-off, it has emerged that residents in the opposition stronghold of South Matabeleland have taken matters into their own hands to fend off the relentless attacks by the ruling party's militias. "War veterans who are camped at a Ministry of Agriculture house in the Nyandeni area have been launching attacks against our supporters since last month," said Petros Mukwena, a local MDC official.

"At the weekend they attacked the home of one of our women candidates and in the process they razed it to the ground. After waiting for a number of days without the police coming to attend to the scene of the crime, villagers mobilised themselves and retaliated." Around 20 war veterans and five opposition supporters were hospitalised following the clashes, he said,

Meanwhile, Mr Mugabe was ratcheting up his own rhetoric, warning that his self-styled war veterans were straining at the leash and ready to go to war if Mr Tsvangirai won the presidency in the 27 June ballot.

South Africa, Zimbabwe's neighbour and erstwhile ally, was forced to issue a public call for calm. "A civil war will not be in the interests of the region," said the South African Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad.

"And so we will do everything possible, first to deal with all the reports of the escalating violence and second to make sure that we never reach the possibility of a civil war because that would be a disaster not only for Zimbabwe but for all of us." This peace call was echoed by a coalition of about 40 prominent Africans – from the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to the Senegalese musician Youssou N'Dour – who took out full-page advertisements in newspapers around the world calling for "an end to the violence and intimidation". "It is crucial for the interests of both Zimbabwe and Africa that the upcoming elections are free and fair," they urged.

But the signs coming from Harare yesterday were far from reassuring. In a speech to his Zanu-PF party faithful, Mr Mugabe said that the war veterans had told him that they would launch a new bush war if his 28-year presidency came to an end when voters returned to the polls later this month."They said if this country goes back into white hands just because we have used a pen [voted], we will return to the bush to fight," Mr Mugabe told the crowd of youth members. "I'm even prepared to join the fight,"he added."We can't allow the British to dominate us through their puppets."

In Matabeleland – where memories are still raw of the 1980s massacres unleashed by Mr Mugabe to consolidate his grip on power – some of the rhetoric was equally bellicose. One local MDC official, who did not want to be named, said they had decided that, for every home burnt down by Zanu-PF militias, the opposition supporters would raze 10 to the ground.

Another MDC member, Fesi Dube, said he would remain defiant in the face of government threats. "I have said that I am not going anywhere because I want to be there to finish off Mugabe," he said. "I am not afraid of the war veterans and if they want to kill me, I will have to kill one of them before they can subdue me," he added, pulling an Okapi knife from his pockets. Norman Mpofu, an MDC politician who was elected to parliament in the March elections, said the war veterans had called him to their base in the Bulilima East constituency. "They asked me to tell people that it was not their intention to fight them but they were only doing a job," said Mr Mpofu. "The situation is degenerating into dangerous levels. The government has to do something about this circle of violence because our people are now traumatised."