Britain has called for a United Nations mission to investigate human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, saying opposition supporters were suffering an increase in violence a month after elections were held.
The UN Security Council, overcoming objections from South Africa, which currently holds the presidency, is due to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe for the first time on Tuesday. Yesterday Gordon Brown, who is seeking an arms embargo on President Robert Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party, said: "The whole international community must speak up against the climate of fear in Zimbabwe", and pledged British help to rebuild the country "once democracy returns".
Outside pressure appears to be the only hope for Zimbabwe's battered opposition. Hundreds of supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) have been attacked and burned out of their homes in the four weeks since the party won a parliamentary majority in the 29 March election. The result of the presidential poll held the same day has still not been announced, almost certainly because Mr Mugabe was decisively beaten by the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.
More than 200 MDC officials and supporters remained in detention yesterday, a day after 250 baton-wielding police raided the party's headquarters at Harvest House in central Harare. Most of those arrested had taken refuge in the building, having been driven out of rural areas around the capital. Pregnant women, mothers with babies strapped to their backs and men with arms and legs in plaster, who had gone to the MDC headquarters after being discharged from hospital in Harare, were among those taken away.
This appeared to be the most blatant signal of Mr Mugabe's determination to ignore the election result and retain power by force. But Zimbabwe is a bizarre mixture of legalism and brutality: yesterday it emerged that a week-long recount of 23 constituencies had failed to overturn the MDC's parliamentary majority. When, a fortnight after the election, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) said that recounts were to take place, lawyers declared the nominally independent body to be in breach of the new electoral law, passed under South African pressure last December, and the assumption was that Mr Mugabe intended to claw back Zanu-PF's majority.
Yet the ZEC said yesterday that no seats had changed hands after recounts in 18 out of the 23 consituencies. With only five more seats at stake, Zanu-PF cannot win back the nine it would need to re-establish control of the House of Assembly. The exercise, however, has gained vital time for the President, whose powers under the constitution enable him to ignore the legislature.
As the upsurge of hope aroused within Zimbabwe by the election turns to despair, criticism has been heard of Mr Tsvangirai. Both he and his deputy, the MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti, have remained outside the country most of the time since the election. They argue that they need to rally international support to ensure that the result is respected, but Mr Tsvangirai has made no secret of fearing for his safety if he returns to Zimbabwe. "What can you do?" he said to an interviewer last weekend. "Do you want a dead hero?"
The MDC leader's personal courage is not in doubt – he suffered severe head injuries just over a year ago when attacked while leading a "prayer rally" – but his tactical acumen has frequently been questioned. Some critics believe he should have been more "presidential" immediately after the election, calling on Zimbabweans to rally behind him. Even though independent monitoring groups reckon that he fell just short of an overall majority in the presidential election, he has insisted that he won outright, and called on an emergency Southern African Development Community summit earlier this month to recognise him as president, a demand many considered unrealistic.
Immediately after the summit, the MDC called for a national "stayaway" in protest at the election being stolen, but it was all but ignored by a populace who cannot afford to lose a day's earnings. Later Mr Tsvangirai appeared to distance himself from the decision to call the protest. He and Mr Biti have also seemed at odds on whether the MDC would take part in a second round of the presidential election, should one be held. Yesterday Mr Brown said the international community would insist any such poll was conducted under foreign scrutiny.
Mr Mugabe is openly disdainful of Mr Tsvangirai, a trade unionist whom he accuses of taking orders from Britain. But when he cannot outmanoeuvre his opponents, the 84-year-old autocrat does not hesitate to use force: the rising tide of violence in Zanu-PF's former rural strongholds has followed the script recently revealed by dissident police officers to The Independent on Sunday.
Co-ordinated by the military and Zanu-PF hardliners, gangs of "war veterans" and youth militias have roamed the countryside, attacking MDC supporters in areas where voting returns showed the party had done well. Police were ordered to stand by and watch, to emphasise that victims would get no protection.
Hundreds of opposition supporters have been driven from their homes, and the party says at least 10 have been murdered. The aim, according to the dissident policemen, is to ensure that in any re-run or run-off of the presidential election, MDC voters will be unable – or too afraid – to get to the polls.