Scale of political violence in Zimbabwe at new high

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The Independent Online

Political killings in Zimbabwe have reached their highest point for two years, with 16 people losing their lives in January, the independent Human Rights Forum said yesterday, as a fresh diplomatic row broke out between Harare and the European Union.

The Human Rights Forum said that 10 of those killed were opposition supporters, three belonged to the ruling party and the affiliation of three others – two of whom were farm guards – was unclear.

"This is the highest number of deaths recorded in any one month since the first politically motivated murder was recorded in March 2000," the group said in a statement.

The Zimbabwean government faces sanctions under the Cotonou agreement, invoked by the EU in October, which governs relations with a bloc of developing states and allows for sanctions if a range of issues, such as human rights and good governance, are not addressed. Zimbabwe said it disputed the way Brussels has interpreted the agreement.

The EU rejected the charge and argued that Zimbabwe itself had not followed correct procedures by failing to take its protest to the relevant committee. "We are aware of the government of Zimbabwe's concern," said a spokeswoman for Chris Patten, the EU commissioner for foreign affairs, "but we believe that we have acted by the book."

In any event, the most serious, targeted sanctions that Zimbabwe faces would be imposed collectively by the EU member states. They have threatened an EU-wide visa ban and a freeze on financial assets for about 20 of the most senior members of government and their families, and a ban on the export from the EU of equipment that could be used for repression.

A meeting of EU ambassadors in Brussels yesterday decided not to invoke the targeted sanctions yet because, as one diplomat put it, there had been "enough positive movement" not to activate them. Officials in Brussels are desperate to get their team of observers into the country ahead of the elections, because they believe that their presence will deter intimidation and encourage a greater turnout by opposition voters.

The government in Zimbabwe has begun accrediting some observers but the key test will come in the next few days when it decides whether all the members of the EU team are granted visas, accreditation and freedom to move around.

However, there is little confidence that the EU's ultimatum to Zimbabwe to allow the international media to operate freely will be observed after the arrest of The Independent correspondent, Basildon Peta.

There were signs that his treatment has hardened the resolve of some EU member states. Louis Michel, Belgium's foreign minister, said: "They must know that the international community will not accept this behaviour. I think we have to press them. I think we have to be very severe, otherwise we will be obliged to recognise the result of the election."

Glenys Kinnock, the Labour MEP, said the critical test was the attitude of the government towards the EU observers. "If this is not satisfactorily dealt with, we have to move to sanctions," she said.