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Zimbabwean leaders are accused in abductions
Michael Wines, New York Times
March 28, 2007

JOHANNESBURG - Hundreds of Zimbabwean political and civic advocates have been abducted and severely beaten in recent days by unidentified assailants, government critics said Wednesday, in dead-of-night assaults that appear to be part of a new government campaign to smother rising unrest.

The attacks came to light on Wednesday after hundreds of police officers raided the Harare headquarters of Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, and detained its best-known leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, and about 20 members. Party officials said the police ransacked the offices, destroying furniture and taking stacks of documents. Lawyers for some advocates said they had been warned not to go to the central police station in Harare, the capital, in search of their clients because of the threat of violence against the lawyers. The government has repeatedly denied any systematic repression of opposition members, saying it has acted solely to root out crimes.

A police spokesman said Wednesday that the officers were searching the opposition party's offices for firebombs. Zimbabwe's news media have been filled in recent days with reports of firebomb attacks on police stations, trains and stores, all of which the government has attributed to the Movement for Democratic Change.

The opposition party has called the firebombing reports lies, planted in the state-controlled news media to discredit critics.

Zimbabwe's government was broadly criticized after the police arrested and beat Mr. Tsvangirai and scores of other political and civic advocates two weeks ago, after they sought to hold what they described as a prayer meeting in Harare.

"The government of Zimbabwe has intensified its brutal suppression of its own citizens in an effort to crush all forms of dissent," Georgette Gagnon, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said Wednesday, referring to the events of recent weeks. Since those arrests, tensions have been high throughout Zimbabwe, especially in the poor urban neighborhoods that are centers of government opposition.

Some political specialists in Harare said that the abductions and beatings in recent days might signal a new and crucial phase in Zimbabwe's economic and political crises, now more than six years old.

The national economy is all but dysfunctional, with inflation exceeding 1,700 percent a year and rapidly increasing. Eight in 10 people are jobless, and a huge share of the 10 million or so citizens survive on remittances from the 3 million Zimbabweans who have left the country.

President Robert G. Mugabe, the 83-year-old autocrat who has led the nation since it ended white rule 27 years ago, is battling a reinvigorated opposition and a growing movement in his own party to oust him. He sought in December to extend his legal rule by two years, to 2010, but received an unprecedented rebuff from members of his party. He has since said he would seek a full six-year term in the next election, in 2008.

But broad elements of his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, are working to thwart his ambitions. Local and international news agencies have reported widely that some in Mr. Mugabe's party are negotiating with Mr. Tsvangirai's opposition movement on a succession plan.

Given those power struggles, one Harare political analyst said Wednesday, it is unclear whether the beatings of potential political opponents are a governmentwide strategy or a narrower effort by Mr. Mugabe's backers to shore up his remaining power.

"The state is behaving repressively on a very, very wide scale, but is the state doing it, or a state within a state?" the analyst said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. "I think there's good reason to believe there's a third force operating here."

No one knows how many have been abducted, but advocates in Zimbabwe said the victims have included political organizers, students, members of civic groups and leaders of the Combined Harare Residents Association, which has organized Harare's poor neighborhoods to press for better city services.

Nelson Chamisa, the spokesman for Mr. Tsvangirai's faction of the Movement for Democratic Change, said that nearly 200 party workers and advocates had been seized in the last three days, usually in raids on their homes after midnight.

In almost all documented cases, he said, the victims were taken in unmarked vehicles to remote locations where they were beaten, then abandoned. An unknown number of party members have not turned up after being kidnapped, he said.

Among the abducted, he said, are two members of the party's national executive committee, one of whom was kidnapped with his wife, and a member of Zimbabwe's Parliament from Glenview, a poor Harare neighborhood that is a locus of government opposition.

Mr. Chamisa was attacked last week at a check-in counter at Harare's airport as he prepared to board a flight to Europe for a political meeting. Four men with iron bars fractured his skull and crushed an eye socket.

"It's state terrorism," he said.

Lovemore Madhuku, who leads Zimbabwe's largest civic group, the National Constitutional Assembly, said that at least 16 of his members had been abducted in the last week. Most have since been hospitalized, he said.

"The strategy is that any person who seems to be active and who is perceived to be a mobilizer or local organizer is targeted for abduction," he said. Violence against government critics has been common in the past, particularly before elections, but the latest abductions and beatings appear to be far more systematic and widespread.

Arrests, beatings and abductions of civic and political figures have mounted since the violent breakup of the so-called prayer meeting on March 11. They appear to have quickened after an important group of Mr. Mugabe's supporters, the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, held a major meeting last weekend in Harare to plot a strategy against Mr. Mugabe's critics, according to advocates and a local journalist.

The veterans were members of a guerrilla army led in part by Mr. Mugabe that won Zimbabwe's liberation from white rule in the 1970s. When they became restive in the late 1990s, Mr. Mugabe sealed their loyalty by granting them huge cash bonuses.

The war veterans were the muscle behind Mr. Mugabe's decision in 2000 to seize the nation's 5,000 white-owned commercial farms and redistribute them to political allies and landless peasants.

A Zimbabwean journalist contributed reporting from Harare.

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