Amid warnings that street violence could spread across the troubled southern African nation, police in Zimbabwe were on high alert yesterday after their riot squads clashed with opposition supportersinthe second city, Bulawayo.
Following a day of tit-for-tat arson attacks on Friday, and looting and assaults on tourists in the opposition stronghold, the Deputy President, Joseph Msika, called for calm. Patrols were increased in Kadoma, where trouble was also reported on Friday, and Masvingo and Gweru.
Bulawayo, in Matabeleland, is considered one of the most volatile areas in Zimbabwe, and is seen by observers as a potential sparking point for civil strife ahead of the presidential elections expected by May next year.
In the mid 1980s, President Robert Mugabe ordered tens of thousands of people killed in the region as part of his campaign, named Gukaruhundi, to co-opt Joshua Nkomo, the region's leader at the time. As a consequence, the region is now staunchly pro-opposition.
The latest violence has involved about 500 militants of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), who on Friday randomly beat whites on Bulawayo's streets and firebombed the offices of the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
The violence followed comments by President Mugabe blaming the MDC for the murder of Cain Nkala, chairman of Bulawayo's war veterans' association and a supporter of Mr Mugabe's controversial campaign to seize white farms for redistribution to landless blacks.
Police have arrested 16 opposition activists and an MDC member of parliament on charges of murder. The body of Nkala, who was kidnapped on 5 November, was found in a shallow grave outside Bulawayo on Tuesday.
The MDC claims it is innocent of the charges and has accused the government of cracking down on the opposition ahead of the elections.
It was understood the Zanu-PF supporters arrived by train from the capital, Harare, and ordered all businesses in the city centre to close before they marched through.
Several schoolchildren, two Germans, including an aid worker, and a Norwegian, were reported caught up in the violence. A German diplomat said: "These people were just randomly attacking whites."
About 1,000 MDC supporters attacked a private college belonging to Sikanyiso Ndlovu, a former ruling party official. "They commandeered a car which they used to smash a plate-glass window, then put a match to its petrol tank," a bystander said, adding that heavily armed paramilitaries fired tear gas to break up the mob.
The MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, speaking from Harare, confirmed that Zanu-PF militants, claiming to be veterans of the 1972-80 war against white rule, had torched his party's local headquarters. He said they were escorted by police officers.Reuse content