The government of Zimbabwe today denounced as "a load of rubbish" accusations by opposition leader Joshua Nkomo that the Army intended to kill him, but diplomats and observers expressed fears that the escalating attacks on him and his supporters during the past six weeks are a prelude to his arrest in the near future.

Nkomo, meanwhile, went into seclusion after a hastily called post-midnight press conference at which he made the accusation, apparently fearing for his life.

At the press conference, which took place after reporters had been taken for a wild ride through the suburbs of Bulawayo, Nkomo said an Army search of his house for arms on Saturday was "a cover."

Prime Minister Robert "Mugabe sent people to kill me and my family," Nkomo, 65, said. "We only got out in time."

Nkomo said troops killed his driver, Yona Ncube, in bed, and there were also reports that a passerby near the house was shot dead. Reporters saw Ncube's bloodstained bed in his quarters at the house.

Government spokesman Justin Nyoka denied Nkomo's charge this morning. "This is a load of rubbish," he said in Harare. "If we wanted to kill him, would it be difficult?"

"Nkomo has become hysterical," Nyoka said, since he feared being arrested because of information obtained from persons detained during a weekend crackdown by the military in the black suburbs of Bulawayo.

Nkomo, who was detained for 10 years under the white-minority government of former prime minister Ian Smith, was fired from the Cabinet by Mugabe last year for allegedly plotting a coup.

About 500 people were detained as hundreds of troops swept through the townships during the weekend, searching houses and checking identity papers, official sources said. The military operation continued today.

Thousands of people have fled to the townships from the rural areas where the Army has been carrying out brutal sweeps against dissidents in the past six weeks. Food supplies have been cut off in many areas, and church and relief officials report that more than 1,000 civilians have been killed by the military while many others have been beaten, burned, shot or raped.

The government has denied the charges and blamed the dissidents for the incidents.

A statement released by the Zimbabwe Embassy in Washington pointed out that it was "normal practice" for the government to have confiscated Nkomo's passport, which it did two weeks ago as it prevented him from leaving the country for a Prague conference, because of "increasing evidence" linking him to a wave of violence in his tribal stronghold, Matabeleland. "Mr. Nkomo may very well have to face charges," the statement said.

During the weekend senior Cabinet ministers, speaking at political rallies in Matabeleland, in southwestern Zimbabwe, threatened to "ban" or "liquidate" his opposition party.

The government-controlled press is full of accusations against Nkomo daily, part of what is regarded as "testing the waters" to see what would happen if and when Nkomo is arrested.

"The government is taking a big risk putting Nkomo inside," an official in Harare said. "It might lead to further violence, dissident activity and mass desertions from the Army" by his former guerrillas if Nkomo is arrested.

At his press conference, Nkomo appealed to the international community, especially the summit of the Nonaligned Movement that the prime minister currently is attending in New Delhi, "to drive some sense into Mugabe's head."

Referring to the search of his house and the alleged plan to kill him, Nkomo said, "Things are not done this way. I did not think responsible people did things like this."

"What happened Saturday was a clear attack on my person by a man who is the prime minister of my country." Nkomo did not provide any specific evidence of the alleged plot except for the search of his house.