HARARE, Zimbabwe – Opposition officials accused Zimbabwe's ruling party Tuesday of orchestrating a campaign of violence in remote rural areas in an effort to intimidate opponents of President Robert Mugabe ahead of a likely runoff election.
The accusations came amid growing reports that ruling party thugs were escalating their invasions of white-owned farms and driving the farmers off their land.
Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe for 28 years with an increasingly dictatorial regime, has virtually conceded that he did not win the March 29 presidential elections.
Though results of the poll remain secret 10 days after the election, he already is campaigning for an expected runoff against opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai by intimidating his foes and exploiting racial tensions.
"There has been massive violence inside the country since the 29th," said Tendai Biti, secretary general of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
Much of the violence has erupted in traditional ruling party strongholds that voted for the opposition in the election, including the rural areas of Murewa, Mutoko and Gweru, he said. Ruling party militants, used previously to intimidate government opponents, were being rearmed, he said.
"There's been a complete militarization and a complete rearming of mobs who led the terror in 2000 and 2006," he said.
Reports of violence in remote rural areas — including the torching of opposition supporters houses — have circulated through Harare in recent days. The reports could not be confirmed because of the danger in traveling to the areas.
Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu denied the claims as outright lies and said there had been no outbreak of violence.
"There is nothing like that. They are concocting things. It is peaceful," Ndlovu said. He said there had been "no violence whatsoever."
About 60 farmers have been forced off their land since Saturday, said Mike Clark, a spokesman for the farmers' union.
"The situation is escalating very rapidly," said Trevor Gifford, president of Zimbabwe's Commercial Farmer's Union, adding that many farmers were not allowed to take anything with them.
Mugabe's opponents pressed a lawsuit to force the publication of the results of the presidential election that they say Tsvangirai won outright. The High Court ruled Tuesday that it would hear the petition urgently and began listening to submissions from the opposition and election commission. The hearing was to resume Wednesday.
Mugabe's ruling party has called for a recount and a further delay in the release of results.
"The results are being cooked to fit the template of a runoff," Biti said.
He accused the ruling party of trying to provoke the opposition to take to the streets.
"We are keeping our members restrained and asking them please to have faith," he said.
Over the weekend, Mugabe urged Zimbabweans to defend land previously seized from white farmers, and militants began invading some of the few remaining white-owned farms. Such land seizures started in 2000 as Mugabe's response to his first defeat at the polls — a loss in a referendum designed to entrench his presidential powers.
Clark, from the farmers' union, said the invasions were happening "all over now." The group says the intruders are being ferried in from other areas on buses and trucks and police are only sporadically taking action.
Uys Van der Westhuizen said he fled his tobacco farm in the Centenary area Monday morning with his wife and four children.
"These guys pitched up at 6 o'clock and basically told us to get out," he said in a phone interview from Harare.
About 150 "thugs, mostly in their early 20s, maybe 25," armed with sticks and machetes beat drums as they moved onto the farm in an effort to intimidate his family. The invaders locked up his workers in one of the farm buildings and beat one of his foremen, he said.
"When I saw him, he had a swollen face," he said.
All his neighbors had been forced out or fled as well, he said.
"There's nobody there. Not one white commercial farmer," he said.
Mugabe's land reform program was supposed to take large commercial farms — much of the country's most fertile land — owned by about 4,500 whites and redistribute it to poor blacks. Instead, he gave the land to ruling party leaders, security chiefs, relatives and friends.
The land redistribution destroyed the food exporter's agricultural sector and sent the economy into free fall. Today, a third of Zimbabweans depend on international food handouts, and another third have fled looking for work or political asylum abroad.
Eighty percent of Zimbabwe's workers don't have jobs, and the country suffers chronic shortages of medicine, food, fuel, water and electricity as inflation blazes at 100,000 percent a year.
The elites, who still live in luxury, want to keep Mugabe in power to ensure their continued access to land, government contracts and business licenses. Some also fear an opposition government could prosecute Mugabe loyalists, including security chiefs involved in the 1980s subjugation of the minority Ndebele tribe that killed tens of thousands.