Zimbabwe death toll reaches 85 as militias step up killings and torture

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The Independent Online

The death toll from state-sponsored violence ahead of Zimbabwe's presidential run-off next week has reached at least 85, independent observers say.

Fourteen killings were reported in a single day yesterday, including four opposition activists burnt to death in a petrol bombing. Human rights groups fear the real toll may be far higher, with many opposition supporters believed to be held in torture camps and police cells, and unidentified bodies being found every morning.

As the killings have increased, the Mugabe regime that has ruled for 28 years has faced unprecedented criticism from fellow African leaders. The Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe, head of a regional Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) observer mission, said it was now impossible for the election to be "free and fair".

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, said at a UN security council meeting on Zimbabwe that "by its actions, the Mugabe regime has given up any pretence that the 27 June elections will be allowed to proceed in a free and fair manner" . The UN is not expected to take action at this stage.

African election monitors have publicly questioned the viability of any vote after their observers witnessed two people being shot dead while they were being deployed to polling stations.

A day after the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, failed in his attempt to get Mr Mugabe to delay the vote, Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) confirmed it had come under heavy pressure from its supporters and officials to pull out of the run-off.

"We have a multiplicity of voices in the party urging us to quit this sham election," MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said. "The party has not yet decided on such a drastic step but it is something gaining wide attention and discussion within our ranks."

Mr Chamisa said the MDC was dismayed by the failure of the SADC and the African Union to take effective measures to rein in the 84- year-old President and his backers in the police and army. The South African leader's diplomatic mission, in which he failed to persuade Mr Mugabe to talk to the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who beat him by a clear margin in the first round of voting, has done nothing to alleviate the political crisis.

An influential Zimbabwean politician close to the Mbeki discussions, who did not want his name used, said: "As long as the so-called mediation is based on appeasing Mugabe instead of confronting his evil regime head on, nothing is going to be achieved. It is understandable that some among opposition ranks want the MDC to pull out. Mugabe has been allowed to create this farce with impunity by his peers who fail to deal with him decisively."

With Tanzania as current chairman of the African Union, Mr Membe said he and the foreign ministers of Swaziland and Angola would write to their presidents "so they do something urgently so we can save Zimbabwe".

SADC is sending 380 monitors to Zimbabwe for the vote. Although Mr Tsvangirai won the first round, heavily delayed official results purported to show he failed to get the outright majority needed to avoid a run-off.

The MDC said the four party activists killed overnight were abducted in Chitungwiza, 15 miles south of the capital, and assaulted with iron bars, clubs and guns. Witnesses said that the victims were forced on to trucks and taken away by militias chanting Zanu-PF slogans.

A further 11 killings were recorded by civil society groups including that of Abigail Chiroto, the wife of the MDC mayor-elect of Harare. She and her four-year-old son, Ashley, were seized at their Harare home on Monday night. The boy, who was left at a nearby police station, said he saw his mother being blindfolded and taken into the bush.

Britain has warned the security and military establishment in Zimbabwe that "they are playing with fire" by allowing the political violence to escalate. "They are digging their own graves," said Lord Malloch- Brown, the Foreign Office minister for Africa, who suggested that existing sanctions against Mr Mugabe and his "hard men" could be widened and deepened after the election. "They will never be able to travel or hold bank accounts outside Zimbabwe, they will lose the ability to send their children to school outside the country. They will be trapped in Zimbabwe."

If Mr Mugabe does manage to steal the election, "it will be by such egregious theft and intimidation that the international community, and neighbouring countries, will see that this is without legitimacy and act accordingly", he said.

Lord Malloch-Brown predicted that Mr Tsvangirai could still secure a "big win" from Zimbabweans who have refused to be cowed by the continuing intimidation and harassment. But he also said that the MDC leader would be expected to share power even in case of a convincing victory. "But with a solid win, he would be able to govern on his own terms."

A day in the life of Mugabe's violent regime

* Four MDC activists were abducted in Chitungwiza yesterday by Zanu-PF supporters and killed in an attack with iron bars, clubs and guns. Amnesty International says that a total 12 people were tortured to death after being abducted by Zanu-PF militias around Zimbabwe yesterday.

* Emmanuel Chiroto, MDC mayor-elect of Harare, described how the body of his murdered wife, Abigai,was hard to identify because her head had been smashed by a blunt instrument. Mrs Chiroto was abducted on Monday with her son, four. The boy was later released unhurt.

* The MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has been denied a new passport, his party said. His deputy, Tendai Biti, appeared in court yesterday, accused of subverting the government.

* The UN said a human rights senior official had been expelled without explanation after meeting aid workers and UN human rights workers.

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