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New crackdown on Zimbabwe opposition
March 28, 2007

HARARE - Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Zimbabwean opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and several other members of his party were detained in a police raid in the capital, Harare, on Wednesday, said party officials and lawyers. Police denied picking up Tsvangirai but confirmed a crackdown on "perpetrators of violence".

"Mr Tsvangirai was about to address a press conference on the abduction of Ian Makoni [MDC party member] and his wife last night [Tuesday], when the police came and cordoned the road outside the MDC head office and picked up every single person in the office," said Tendai Biti, MDC secretary-general. He could not confirm the number of people in the office at the time.

The detention of the opposition members came as President Robert Mugabe was reportedly scheduled to attend a South African Development Community (SADC) meeting in Tanzania on Thursday and Friday, called to discuss the situation Zimbabwe. The meeting will be attended by the SADC's security 'troika', Angola, Tanzania and Namibia, as well as current SADC chair Lesotho, outgoing chair Botswana, and incoming chair Zambia.

Otto Saki, an attorney with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, an NGO that defends victims of rights abuses, confirmed that Tsvangirai and other opposition members had been "arrested". "But we still don't know on what grounds, and we have not been allowed to access them."

A statement from Crisis in Zimbabwe, a coalition of more than 300 civil society organisations, said Tsvangirai had been arrested when he was about to announce Makoni's abduction by unknown assailants, who were suspected of being military intelligence officers.

Crisis added that Tsvangirai had also planned to deny the involvement of the MDC in the recent spate of petrol bombings around the country, but truckloads of heavily armed police arrived to raid the MDC office.

Assistant Commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena, the national police spokesman, has confirmed that the police raided the MDC office and "picked up some people last night" (Tuesday).

"Tsvangirai was not among the people we picked up this morning [Wednesday] as part of our campaign to look for perpetrators of violence," he told IRIN.

However, police sources told IRIN that Tsvangirai had been arrested but released later in the afternoon.

Aleck Muchadehama, one of Tsvangirai's lawyers, said he had been told that the MDC leader had been arrested but was waiting to get further details on why his client had been detained.

"I am aware that Tsvangirai was arrested but I am still in the dark about what is happening. Right now, I don't have details of his arrest," Muchadehama told IRIN late on Wednesday afternoon.

Scores of police officers in riot gear, wielding AK-47 assault rifles, barricaded all the roads around Harvest House, the MDC headquarters in Harare, on Wednesday.

Elsewhere in the city centre there was an unusually heavy presence of policemen, some of whom told IRIN that they had been hurriedly summoned from police stations from across the capital to beef up security in anticipation of unrest.

Fearing violence, some people decided to leave their workplaces in the afternoon, while some businesses, especially small retail shops, sent their workers home as early as 10 in the morning.

"Even though there was no evidence of people gathering, I sent my workers home in the morning because, in the past, my shop has been the target of criminals who take advantage of the breakout of violence. With so many police officers around, anything can happen," said Tichaona Makwiro, the owner of a shop that sells electrical goods in the city centre.

Zimbabwe has been simmering for the past two months, but the situation has taken a violent turn since the police imposed a ban on political rallies in February. About two weeks ago, there were running battles with the police ahead of a planned prayer meeting in Harare, in which an opposition supporter was shot dead by the police, and opposition leaders, including Tsvangirai, were arrested and allegedly beaten while in custody.

Strikes and protests to highlight the worsening economic situation have now given way to bombings of police stations, a passenger train and a supermarket, among other targets across the country.

In an extraordinary move, the parliamentary portfolio committee on transport and communications, which is dominated by ruling ZANU-PF party legislators and chaired by Leo Mugabe, President Robert Mugabe's nephew, expressed its displeasure last week over the attack on Nelson Chamisa, the spokesperson for one of the MDC factions.

Chamisa was attacked and beaten by unknown assailants at Harare International Airport while he was preparing to travel to Brussels for a meeting of parliamentarians from African, Caribbean and Pacific states as well as the European Union. He had to be hospitalised.

"Members [of the committee] have raised this concern [lax security] with regards to what happened to HonourableChamisa. It happened at the airport, and we call for the need to ensure high security so that we do not have a repeat of what happened," Mugabe said. He suggested that members of parliament always be escorted to the airport to ensure their safety.

Jabulani Sibanda, a former ZANU-PF official, commented: "The MDC is a properly registered party that has been in existence since 1999, and that means its views should be respected by the police, government and political opponents," Sibanda told IRIN. "It becomes unacceptable when members of the MDC are beaten up as though they belonged to a criminal formation."

More unrest is expected next week as the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions has announced a two-day job stayaway to protest falling standards of living, 80 percent unemployment and a fast-deteriorating economy, marked by inflation of more than 1,700 percent.

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