The charred shells of houses, huts and shops strewn along a five-mile stretch of dirt road in this rural heart of Zimbabwe are evidence of the latest outbreak of political violence and intimidation in this divided society.

The trouble here followed an increasingly familiar pattern. A local official of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's ruling political party was slain last month, allegedly by dissidents loyal to Mugabe's chief political rival, Joshua Nkomo. The official's wife was also killed and their house was burned to the ground.

Four days after the killings, six busloads of young Mugabe supporters descended upon the area and took their revenge, Nkomo supporters say. When they were finished, these supporters say, four residents were dead and at least 64 houses, three stores and six cars had been torched.

"They knew just which houses to burn," said Stephen Vuma, a businessman in the nearby city of Gweru who is an official of Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU). "The ones with officers of the party or the ones with people who were the most active."

The violence was the worst in the central Midlands Province since June, when at least 10 persons died and dozens of houses were torched in rioting by Mugabe followers provoked by assassinations by armed dissidents. The recent violence also provided further evidence that the cycle of attack and counterattack once confined to the southern Matabeleland region has spun northward into other parts of Zimbabwe.

This comes at a time when western diplomats and other interested observers had hoped tensions in Africa's youngest nation were lessening. Mugabe's government has publicly appeared to ease its tight grip on political dissent as a prelude to national elections planned for early next year. Nkomo's party, which has disowned the dissidents, recently was allowed to hold a national congress in Harare. Opposition political leader Abel Muzorewa, a Methodist bishop released from detention in September, has been holding rallies in major cities.

In Matabeleland, Nkomo's political stronghold and scene of widespread reports of civilian beatings, rapes and occasional killings by soldiers conducting a harsh counterinsurgency campaign earlier this year, residents and mission workers say the number of violent incidents has declined substantially, but not ceased altogether.

Catholic mission workers in the city of Bulawayo say they have received reports of an outbreak of rapes by soldiers in the Tjolotjo area northwest of the city. Selina Moyo, a nurse at the Matopo Brethren in Christ Mission south of the city, said she still treated occasional victims of beatings who told her they had been warned by soldiers not to seek medical treatment for their wounds.

"When you look from a distance, everything seems all right," said Luke Sibanda, a pastor at the mission. "But if you come closer and talk to the people, you find it is as bad as ever."

Meanwhile, the government's antidissident campaign appears to have shifted from a military to a political phase. Civilians periodically are rounded up by the Army and compelled to attend political meetings conducted by leaders of Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Support for Nkomo's party has been forced underground and almost everyone appears to have purchased ZANU membership cards for personal safety.

The government believes it has won the loyalty of a majority of Matabeleland residents, according to Minister of Mines Callistus Ndlovu, a former official in Nkomo's ZAPU who defected to Mugabe's ZANU earlier this year. He told a political rally last month that ZAPU "no longer exists in these areas because people there have realized that the war which Nkomo's party was continually waging against ZANU was the cause of their suffering."

Many in the area believe practices such as forced rallies and membership sign-ups have caused resentment and may backfire at election time, provided people are given the opportunity to vote without fear of reprisal.

For many here, that appears an unlikely prospect, despite government promises. Residents recall last year's local council elections in Tjolotjo, where two ballot boxes were used, one for ZANU, one for ZAPU. Voters were forced to line up in front of the box of their choice under the watchful eyes of armed soldiers loyal to Mugabe's ZANU. That party's candidates received the vast majority of votes in an area that previously had been overwhelmingly pro-ZAPU.

Two foreign correspondents who recently attempted to monitor a similar council election in the lower Gweru communal area were ordered to leave by the local police superintendent, who refused to give his name. They were told by Assistant Police Commissioner Joram Mudzingwa that the area was considered "operational," and that reporters must have written permission from police headquarters in Harare to travel there.

At Wilson's Church in a western suburb of Bulawayo a half-dozen men who had fled their homes after the burnings in Maboleni described what they had seen. They said their assailants were members of the ZANU youth brigade who rampaged through the village, beating ZAPU supporters and making torches out of straw ripped from the thatched roofs of huts.

The violence had tribal overtones, according to these villagers, who said the ZANU youths spared Shona speakers loyal to Mugabe but attacked Ndebeles in the village, which traditionally has been home to both groups. They also contended that the rioters were urged on by Midlands Gov. Benson Ndemera, who was in the village to attend the funeral of the slain ZANU official and his wife.

Ndemera was out of town and not available for comment, according to his secretary. Assistant Police Commissioner Mudzingwa said police were investigating the incident, which has been overlooked by state-sponsored newspapers.

ZAPU official Stephen Vuma said he expects such incidents to increase as the elections draw near. "Things will get worse," he said.