JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Zimbabwe's regime got a taste of the international isolation critics say it deserves, with its neighbors uniting to block a shipment of Chinese arms to prevent them from being used against Robert Mugabe's opponents.
Union, church and human rights leaders across southern Africa rallied against allowing the Chinese freighter An Yue Jiang to dock at ports in any of landlocked Zimbabwe's neighbors, and they were bolstered by behind-the-scenes pressure from the United States.
In the end, governments usually unwilling to criticize Mugabe barred the ship at a time when Zimbabwe's government is being accused of cracking down on dissenters.
On Tuesday, church leaders in Zimbabwe said people were being tortured, abducted and murdered in a campaign of retribution against opposition supporters following the March 29 election, and urged international intervention.
In Washington, the State Department said it had urged countries in southern Africa — notably South Africa, Mozambique, Angola and Namibia — not to allow the ship to dock or unload. It also asked the Chinese government to recall the vessel and not to make further weapons shipments to Zimbabwe until the postelection crisis is resolved.
China insisted the shipment of mortar grenades, ammunition and other weapons was part of "normal military product trade between the two countries," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.
"As far as I know, the carrier is now considering carrying back the cargo," she added.
Patrick Craven, spokesman for a South African trade union federation, which helped lead the campaign, called it a "historic victory" that he hoped would encourage Zimbabweans and lead to more grass-roots campaigns against Mugabe.
"So far the governments have clearly been lagging behind the people," Craven said. "We're hoping now they will wake up."
A spokesman for Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai welcomed the development. "It would be pleasing to the people of Zimbabwe to note that there has been solidarity on the continent to stop the arming of the (Mugabe) regime at the expense of the people," said the aide, Nelson Chamisa.
When the ship arrived in South Africa last week, the government said there was no legal reason to stop its cargo from being unloaded and shipped on to Zimbabwe. There is no international arms embargo against Zimbabwe.
The Southern Africa Litigation Center, a South Africa-based human rights group, persuaded a judge to bar the weapons from transiting South Africa to reach Zimbabwe. The ship then sailed away from South Africa, and private groups and government officials in Mozambique, Angola and Namibia also objected to the weapons.
Nicole Fritz, director of the center, said she believed Zimbabwe's neighbors were not changing policy but were responding to pressure from civic groups and the United States. She was particularly critical of South Africa, whose President Thabo Mbeki was chosen by regional leaders to mediate between Mugabe and his opponents and who has counseled against confronting Mugabe.
"The South African authorities' actions over this past week ... suggest that South Africa cannot be perceived to be a good faith mediator," she said, noting the Zimbabwean opposition has asked that Mbeki step aside.
Over 200 African bar associations, human rights groups and other independent organizations met Monday in Tanzania and issued a demand that the African Union get involved in Zimbabwe's crisis, saying the southern African regional grouping that had appointed Mbeki mediator is not doing enough.
The Zimbabwe crisis "is serious enough that the AU must get involved and it must de dealt with at a continental level because this is an issue that has strong implications for the continent," Eleanor Sisulu of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition told The Associated Press Tuesday.
The State Department also is urging governments in the region to step up pressure on Mugabe's government to release the long-delayed results of the election and said the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, would leave Washington Tuesday for talks in Angola, South Africa and Zambia.
The Bush administration also pressured Zimbabwe's neighbors to turn away the arms shipment.
"Right now, clearly, is not the time that we would want to see anyone putting additional weapons or additional material into this system when the situation is so unsettled and when we have seen real and visible instances of abuses committed by the security forces," deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.
He added that China had been encouraged in a message delivered by U.S. diplomats in Beijing "to halt this shipment" and "to refrain from making additional shipments."
Mugabe's deputy information minister, Bright Matonga, said Tuesday his country had the right to acquire arms from legitimate sources. "We are not a rebel country," he told The Associated Press.
The opposition says post-election violence had displaced 3,000 people, injured 500 and left 10 dead.
Chamisa, the opposition spokesman, said he visited a hospital in southeastern Zimbabwe on Monday where he saw cases of people injured in postelection violence, including a pregnant woman who had a "wound in her womb" after being stabbed. He said he also saw an 85-year-old woman whose legs had been broken.
Mugabe's officials said such reports could not be confirmed, adding that if there had been such violence, the opposition could be to blame.