Two more Zimbabwe farm workers killed

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Ruling party militants killed two opposition supporters in renewed political violence in Zimbabwe, an opposition official said Tuesday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, gave no details of the killings, which he said happened yesterday.

However, the independent newspaper The Daily News reported Tuesday that one member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change was killed Monday night near Madziwa Mine, 60 miles northeast of Harare, after a mob demanded he prove he was a member of the ruling party.

Ruling party militants also rampaged through the area, Moses Kufandiko, a local MDC official, was quoted as saying.

"No less than 16 houses belonging to MDC members have been destroyed. The culprits have not been arrested," he was quoted as saying.

The two killings would bring to six the number of opposition supporters killed in the past two weeks.

More than 500 people attended a memorial service Tuesday for white farmer David Stevens, who was killed April 15 by militant black squatters occupying his land. Stevens, who was a strong supporter of the MDC, was beaten and shot in the head after being abducted from his farm in the Macheke district, 75 miles east of Harare.

"I hope for the sake of the ones that have lost their lives, including David, that something good will come out of this dreadful and intimidating situation, and that our troubled country can go back to its normal, happy self and get the change we all deserve," Stevens' widow, Maria, said in a statement read on her behalf at the service.

Five other white farmers were abducted and beaten in the incident, which prompted the approximately 80 families in the area to evacuate.

Another white farmer with links to the MDC, Martin Olds, was killed April 18, and two black MDC supporters were killed in an April 15 firebombing.

Farmers here are worried that the violence will delay Wednesday's scheduled opening of tobacco auctions and deter foreign buyers, dealing another blow to the country's suffering economy.

Zimbabwe is the world's second biggest tobacco exporter after Brazil, and the product is the nation's largest source of hard currency.

But this year, the amount of tobacco delivered to the auction floors is down sharply. Work to grade and pack tobacco has been disrupted by armed black squatters' violent occupations of white-owned farms, said officials of the Commercial Farmers Union, which represents many white farmers here. On Monday, tobacco worth an estimated dlrs 240,000 was destroyed when mobs torched a tobacco barn in eastern Zimbabwe, neighbors said.

Pat Devenish, head of the tobacco auction floors, said just 6,000 bales of tobacco had been delivered by growers to the floors. In normal years, at least 20,000 bales would have been delivered on the weekend ahead of the start of the auctions.

Though the auctions continue for several months, it is crucial that they start on time so farmers can get money to pay off loans they took out to buy seeds and fertilizers. The country, suffering from the worst economic crisis since independence in 1980, is also in desperate need of the millions in foreign currency the auctions bring.

Elsewhere Monday, squatters illegally occupying white-owned farms assaulted and threatened black farm workers, farmers' union officials said. An unspecified number of workers were hospitalized, but the extent of their injuries was unknown.

It was the latest violence in the illegal occupation of land on more than 1,000 white-owned farms. President Robert Mugabe has insisted that the occupations, which began in February, are a justified protest by land-hungry blacks against a few thousand whites who own about a third of the nation's productive land.

Opponents of the government accuse Mugabe of allowing the violent occupations to shore up his flagging popularity ahead of nation elections expected to be called in May. Opponents also argue Mugabe wants to punish farmers for supporting the opposition.

Police presence in recent days has calmed the situation on the farms, said Tim Henwood, head of the Commercial Farmers Union. Police earlier had been ordered by the government not to intervene.

"They are taking an active role. There has been a definite change in the last 48 hours," Henwood said Monday.

Police on Monday morning ordered squatters camped outside a homestead near Mvurwi, 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Harare, to leave. The squatters left without incident, freeing farm manager Duncan Hamilton and two women who were trapped in the house overnight, Henwood said. The three were unharmed.

Also Monday, police escorted a convoy of about 45 farmers and their families back to the Macheke district. The convoy stopped at each farm to ensure it was safe for the family to stay.

The rest of the evacuated families declined to return.