Zimbabwe police haul in opposition's top leaders

Thursday, June 12, 2008

By ANGUS SHAW, Associated Press Writer


HARARE, Zimbabwe — 

President Robert Mugabe's regime struck at his rivals Thursday only two weeks before Zimbabwe's presidential runoff, twice detaining his challenger and jailing the No. 2 opposition leader to face treason charges.

The U.S. ambassador, meanwhile, said 20 tons of American food aid heading to impoverished Zimbabwean children had been seized by authorities last week and given to Mugabe supporters at a rally.

The repeated detentions, coupled with Western accusations that Mugabe's regime is using food as a weapon, dramatically demonstrate the obstacles to the campaign thrown up by the longtime leader.

"This is a government that is taking tremendous and, frankly, awful strides to maintain its power, that is increasingly abusing its own citizens and has raised, or should I say lowered, the bar to a level that we rarely see," State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said in Washington.

White House press secretary Dana Perino, traveling in Europe with President Bush, said the U.N. Security Council should quickly take up the Zimbabwe crisis "to prevent further deterioration of the region's humanitarian and security situation."

In Washington, officials said the United States would try to raise the Zimbabwe issue next week. Previous attempts to get the Security Council to make a statement on Zimbabwe have been thwarted by South Africa, an elected council member that regards Mugabe as a hero for his support of its struggle against white rule.

The council is divided over what to do and whether to hold an open debate about it, said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who holds the council's rotating presidency this month, after the council was briefed on Zimbabwe Thursday.

With Mugabe's consent, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is sending special envoy Haile Menkerios to Zimbabwe next week to discuss the political situation.

"The Zimbabwean leadership, Mr. Mugabe and others, know at least where we, the United States, and several other members of the council are on this issue," Khalilzad said. "If he does not cooperate with Mr. Menkerios and the current trends continue, we will have to deal with it. And we'll deal with it as quickly as we can."

Morgan Tsvangirai, who led the opening round of presidential voting 2 1/2 months ago and faces the increasingly autocratic Mugabe in a June 27 runoff, was first stopped at a roadblock in the south and held at a police station for about two hours, his party said.

The party said Tsvangirai went back to campaigning, but was stopped later by another group of police, and it was not known if he was still being held Thursday night. It was the third and fourth times in recent weeks that he was detained while running against Mugabe, who is increasingly unpopular for repressive ways and a wrecked economy.

But the biggest blow was aimed at Tendai Biti, secretary-general of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, who was arrested at Harare airport upon returning from South Africa. Police said he would be charged with treason, which carries the possibility of the death penalty.

Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said the treason charge related to a "transition document" discussing changing Zimbabwe's government.

He said Biti also would be charged with making false statements "prejudicial to the state." That charge refers to accusations that Biti announced election results before the official count was released. Under Zimbabwean law, only the electoral commission can announce results.

Bvudzijena said Biti was in police custody but would not say where. He said Biti would be charged "as soon as we are through with our investigation," but would not be more specific.

Biti's detention robs the opposition of one of its most impassioned spokesmen. He has led on-and-off talks with Mugabe's party, and his arrest may signal Mugabe's final rejection of the possibility of negotiating Zimbabwe out of its political and economic crisis.

In a statement, Tsvangirai's party called on police "to immediately reveal Mr. Biti's location and release him unharmed immediately."

The party said it was "extremely concerned about the welfare of the secretary-general given the flagrant disregard for the rule of law and ongoing, state-sanctioned political violence and abductions currently prevalent in Zimbabwe."

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who was appointed by Zimbabwe's neighbors to mediate in the crisis but has been accused by critics of not doing enough, planned to discuss Biti's arrest with Mugabe's government, his spokesman Mukoni Ratshitanga said.

Mbeki intervened on behalf of Tsvangirai when the leader was detained for nine hours earlier this month.

Tsvangirai, Biti and other opposition leaders had left Zimbabwe soon after the first presidential ballot March 29 amid concerns about their security. Tsvangirai returned May 24 to begin campaigning for the runoff.

U.S. Ambassador James McGee said the Bush administration was "very, very concerned" about Biti's arrest.

McGee said he had seen the opposition party's "transition document" mentioned by the police spokesman, describing it as a routine plan that any political party would draw up to identify priorities if it were to come to power.

But he said a forged version had been circulating that raised issues not contained in the genuine document, including calls for punishing Mugabe hard-liners. "It was just a bunch of foolishness," he told The Associated Press.

McGee said continuing political violence, Biti's arrest and Tsvangirai's detention left him with little confidence that the runoff will be free and fair.

Officials of the Southern African Development Community said 120 monitors would deploy beginning Thursday and plans called for a total of 400 observers by election day _ three times the number sent for the March 29 vote.

"We'd like to see three to four times that," McGee said. "Then I think we would have an opportunity" for free and fair elections.

The opposition, McGee and other foreign diplomats, and Zimbabwean and international human rights groups accuse Mugabe of unleashing violence against Tsvangirai's supporters to ensure Mugabe wins the runoff.

The government and Mugabe's party deny the allegations.

The U.S. ambassador reported that a provincial governor confiscated a truck loaded with 20 tons of American wheat and beans intended for poor schoolchildren last week and ordered that the food be distributed to Mugabe supporters at a rally.

"This food assistance belongs to the U.S. government, to the U.S. taxpayer," McGee told The Associated Press, saying he had lodged a formal complaint with Zimbabwe's government Tuesday. He said he had not yet received a response.

"The bottom line is, they don't care," McGee said. "President Mugabe and his henchman are now looting U.S. government aid."

Mugabe, in power since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980, was lauded early in his rule for campaigning for racial reconciliation and building the economy. But in recent years, he has been accused of holding onto power through fraud and intimidation and trampling on people's rights.

He also is accused of overseeing an economic slide blamed on the collapse of the key agriculture sector after often violence seizures of farmland from whites.

Mugabe claimed he ordered the seizures, begun in 2002, to benefit poor blacks. But many of the farms went to his loyalists.


Associated Press writers Donna Bryson in Johannesburg, South Africa, Matthew Lee in Washington, John Heilprin at the United Nations and Deb Riechmann accompanying President Bush in Europe contributed to this report.

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