Zimbabwe Raid Targets Activists
Thursday, March 29, 2007
JOHANNESBURG, March 28 -- Zimbabwean police raided the headquarters of the country's leading opposition party Wednesday and arrested its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, before freeing him a few hours later, party officials said.
Riot police cordoned off the party headquarters building in Harare, the capital, late Wednesday morning, shortly before Tsvangirai was scheduled to give a news conference, and arrested more than 20 people inside, according to party officials. Tsvangirai, who is recovering from injuries caused by police beatings during an earlier arrest, was freed about 2 p.m.
Police acknowledged that the raid took place, citing investigations into bombings of civilian targets this month. But a police spokesman, Wayne Bvudzijena, said Tsvangirai was never in custody during the incident although 10 suspects were arrested in connection with the bombings.
"Should our investigation indicate he's also a participant or a leader in the petrol bombings, we certainly will arrest him," Bvudzijena said, speaking from Harare. "There's nothing linking him to the petrol bombings so far."
The incident was the latest in a turbulent month as President Robert Mugabe seeks to retain control after 27 years in power. The police beatings of Tsvangirai and about 50 other activists on March 11 provoked international outrage and a resurgence of pressure from southern African leaders frustrated by Zimbabwe's long social and economic decline.
Top officials of the Southern African Development Community, including Mugabe and South African President Thabo Mbeki, met in Tanzania on Wednesday in a bid to resolve the crisis.
While the world's attention has focused on the attacks on opposition figures, Mugabe's government has stepped up efforts to portray Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change as a violent group bent on overturning the government through a campaign of terror.
Bvudzijena listed 10 bombings, none fatal, this month targeting police stations, ruling party activists and a passenger train. On Tuesday and Wednesday, police arrested 35 party activists they allege had a role in the attacks.
Opposition activists Piniel Denga and Ian Makone were arrested Tuesday night. Bvudzijena said that Denga had sticks of dynamite and detonators and that Makone had an unlicensed weapon. In the raid on party headquarters Wednesday, police also seized files and computers.
The party's secretary general, Tendai Biti, dismissed the police allegations as "rubbish" designed to distract attention from the government crackdown on political activity. Mugabe has repeatedly vowed more violence against opposition figures who attempt to organize protests in defiance of a police ban.
"We are dealing with a madman," Biti said, speaking from Harare. "A mad person will throw anything at you."
The situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated since the March 11 arrests. A party spokesman was brutally beaten by police wielding iron bars at Harare's airport. Others were prevented from flying to Johannesburg to seek medical care. And opposition activists have detailed a series of quiet abductions of party members, typically by plainclothes agents driving unmarked cars.
Mugabe's feared secret police are among the few government agencies that have been given major budget increases as Zimbabwe's fiscal squeeze intensifies.
Tsvangirai's news conference was intended to detail the recent attacks on the opposition, party officials said.