JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Riot police in Zimbabwe raided the headquarters of the main opposition party on Saturday and arrested dozens of supporters, a spokesman said.
Nelson Chamisa said close to 200 Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters had been seized in the raid on the party's headquarters in central Harare.
Three truckloads of riot police arrived at the headquarters around midday. The police broke up a "routine meeting" called by the MDC to discuss party issues ahead of next year's crucial presidential and parliamentary polls, Chamisa said in a telephone interview.
There was no immediate comment from the government.
President Robert Mugabe's government embarked on a fierce clampdown on the opposition in March, worried that Zimbabwe's fast-deteriorating economic crisis could spark an uprising. Since then hundreds of opposition party supporters have been arrested and dozens beaten, including main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
Most recently, police arrested and assaulted defense lawyers acting on behalf of opposition members.
South African President Thabo Mbeki is heading an initiative to bring the Mugabe government and the opposition to the negotiating table, but there have been few signs of success so far.
Chamisa said many of those arrested in Saturday's raid were members of the youth wing.
"This is hypocrisy by this regime," he said. "This is a selective application of what they call the law."
Earlier this week, police in Harare extended a controversial ban on demonstrations and rallies for one month, citing fears of political violence.
But Saturday's meeting "was neither a demonstration nor a rally," Chamisa said.
"We are worried for the safety" of those arrested, he said. At least 12 opposition supporters arrested in a similar raid on the party's headquarters in March are still in custody, accused of planning acts of terrorism.
Tensions are rising in Zimbabwe, where inflation last month reached a record 3,714 percent annually. Teachers and civil servants are threatening strikes in a move likely to anger the authorities.
On Friday, the deputy information minister was forced to issue an official denial that Zimbabwe's soldiers were starving following claims in a local weekly that the army was fast running out of food and might have to suspend training of recruits.
Mugabe insists Zimbabwe's worst-ever economic crisis is a result of Western sanctions and has nothing to do with a seven-year-old program of white land seizures that has seen agricultural production in this once-prosperous nation plummet.
Government officials routinely tell Zimbabweans that the MDC is responsible for the sanctions and urge them to vote for the ruling party in upcoming elections.
The MDC and other government critics have been calling for the repeal of controversial legislation including tough security and press laws.
But National Security Minister Didymus Mutasa has ruled out a repeal of the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), the official Herald newspaper reported Saturday.
Mutasa said the act which has been used to ban public meetings was "vital in checking Western-sponsored pandemonium in the country," the Herald said.