Opposition warns Mugabe as two more are killed

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The crisis in Zimbabwe took an ominous turn yesterday when opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai warned that his party could no longer continue to "turn the other cheek" to supporters of the Zanu-PF government following the death of two more of its members and escalating political violence.

Mr Tsvangirai claimed that two men belonging to his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which poses the first real threat in years to President Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF's one-party state, had been beaten to death in the tourist town of Kariba, about 350 kilometres north-west of Harare. The town is apparently bereft of tourists and its white residents.

The deaths came 24 hours after a MDC supporter was killed near Madziwa mine and another killed in Harare. On the same day a party official in Shamva was injured in an axe attack. The MDC claims that 10 of its members have now been killed by Zanu-PF supporters.

Mr Tsvangirai claimed the MDC had been forced to pull out of Kariba following harassment and intimidation. Some of the party's members are reported to have been flogged in the town square.

For the first time, Mr Tsvangirai threatened retaliation. He said: "The MDC will no longer sit back and watch our supporters being killed ... we shall devise a strategy to protect ourselves. We shall take this violence to their doorstep.

"All those engaged in condoning violence - the vice-president, cabinet ministers and MPs - we know where they are. Human life cannot be lost by the deliberate action of the state."

MDC officials said later that Mr Tsvangirai had simply meant that he would hold those who condoned violence accountable. But it is likely that his supporters will take it as a green light to hit back after months of intimidation and attacks, fuelling fears that the country could descend into a wider conflict.

The MDC has been targeted by Zanu-PF in the run up to elections which President Mugabe must set a date for soon. But many in Zimbabwe believe that the President and his party are fuelling violence in a desperate bid to stay in power. Some political analysts believe the President will in fact refuse to hold elections on the grounds that the country is too unstable.

The MDC is just seven months old and yet has tapped into widespread discontentment. Its popularity has spread from the cities into rural communities which were once the bedrock of Zanu-PF support.

Though land has been a contentious issue since the colonials first came to the country, the attack on white-owned farms is largely a mechanism for diverting attention from a wider campaign of terror.

Farm attacks by "war veterans" now seem to focus more on farm workers than white farm owners. Every day there are reports of beatings and assaults as veterans invade farms. Workers are put on "trial" if they are suspected of being MDC members and are forced to burn party memberships. In rural areas people are being stopped and asked to show Zanu-PF membership cards - if they cannot they are beaten or forced to join.

Yesterday Zanu-PF boycotted a meeting called by religious leaders trying to stop the conflict. The police are being criticised for failing to protect MDC members.