Zimbabwe opposition attacks 'arms find' allegation

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The Independent Online

Zimbabwean opposition politicians, who have been accused by the ruling party of training guerrilla fighters in Britain and South Africa, yesterday denounced what they saw as a pre-election smear campaign. They also expressed fears that the smears could escalate into the sort of repression the country saw in the 1980s.

At the same time, veterans leading farm occupations across the country appeared to harden their stance, proclaiming "now we are at war" and rubbishing a new court ruling on Thursday that their actions were unlawful. Chengirai "Hitler" Hundzvi, their leader, said: "The judges are part of the old white system. Fighters like us were hanged by their system. They can go to hell."

At Atlanta maize farm in Arcturus, near Harare, a group of occupiers - seen for the first time wearing T-shirts sporting the ruling party logo - said they would not budge, despite a statement on Thursday from the acting president, Joseph Msika, that the sit-ins were no longer necessary. "We will take orders from no one except President Robert Mugabe," the group of about 20 invaders said.

With President Mugabe abroad until tomorrow, farms across Zimbabwe continued to report incidents and none saw signs of the invaders retreating. The Commercial Farmers' Union estimates that 500 farms are facing ongoing occupations and more than 1,000 have been hit since February.

In Harare, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) - whose leader Morgan Tsvangirai was in London yesterday - held a sombre press conference at which it condemned the government for "peddling a preposterous concoction of lies" through state papers and television.

Among the allegations in the state media was one claim that an MDC arms cache had been found on a white-owned farm in Mazowe, near Harare, and that the party was training guerrillas in South Africa and Britain. The daily Herald newspaper also claimed that the MDC, in cohoots with "white forces" at home, in Britain, South Africa and the United States, aimed to sabotage the country's economy.

On three-quarters of a page, the newspaper published what it claimed was a leaked document from the MDC which it said was a "treasonable" plan to destabilise the government. In reference to guerrilla groups in Angola and Mozambique - which during the Cold War were backed by the West and apartheid South Africa - the party was likened to "the Unita or Renamo of Zimbabwe". The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) has a Marxist tradition.

The MDC's secretary general, Welshman Ncube, compared Zanu-PF's tactic to the prelude to the Matabeleland massacres in the early 1980s in which the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade killed thousands of members of the Ndebele tribe in the southwest of the country. The terror campaign, which began as an attempt to intimidate Zanu-PF's main war ally, Zapu, after it became a post-liberation rival, claimed mainly civilian lives. Mr Ncube said: "Zanu-PF is using similar tactics because it is staring defeat in the face. This could be a prelude to arresting the leadership of the MDC or to declaring a state of emergency.

"In the last month, Zanu-PF has attacked MDC members and taken hundreds of our T-shirts. It would not surprise us if a battle was staged and it was claimed that the violent mob was an MDC guerrilla."

Mr Ncube added: "Zanu-PF is a terrorist party. It is the government which has sabotaged the economy. What we are seeing, in repeated attacks on our supporters, are the usual Zanu-PF tactics wherever they have sought to take action against opponents."

His claims and Mr Tsvangirai's visit to London came just days before the 20th anniversary of the end of white rule in Zimbabwe, which falls on Tuesday. However, the ruling party has already announced that the celebrations, which usually include a stadium rally and a military parade, have been cancelled.

The official reason given for the cancellation is that the money will be spent on flood victims in the east of the country, who in February suffered the onslaught of Eline, the same cyclone which hit Mozambique. But observers believe that Zanu-PF is afraid of violence or believes the set-piece will not attract the usual crowds.

Zimbabwe is awaiting an announcement on a date for parliamentary elections. President Mugabe has promised the international community that they will take place in May but no such announcement has yet been made at home.