Zimbabwe police raid opposition offices

April 25, 2008 7:18:37 PM PDT
Riot police and intelligence officers ransacked opposition party headquarters and the offices of independent election monitors Friday, hauling away material documenting President Robert Mugabe's apparent electoral defeat. Hundreds of people were arrested in the raids, which sent a powerful message that Zimbabwe's longtime leader intends to hold onto power despite a growing global clamor for him to step aside and rising violence at home.

Pregnant women, mothers with babies strapped to their backs, girls who had been threatened with rape and men with broken bones were among those herded into a bus and pickup truck during Friday's raid on opposition headquarters.

Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change and the independent Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network both maintain Tsvangirai won the March 29 presidential vote, based on their own surveys of tallies posted at ballot stations. Official results have yet to be released.

About 250 riot police wielding batons arrested about 300 people in a sweep on the opposition's Harvest House offices in the capital, Harare, the party reported.

It said the detainees included scores of opposition supporters who had sought refuge there from a brutal postelection revenge campaign in the countryside.

"Their homes were burned," said Thokozani Khupe, a party vice president. "Some have been brutally assaulted."

Assistant Police Commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena said those arrested were suspected of "crimes committed in the countryside."

The operation came a day after a U.S. envoy declared opposition leader Tsvangirai the victor and called on Mugabe to step down.

The raids appeared aimed at collecting any information showing Mugabe and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union lost the election.

"The police ... say they want the documents that the party has that form the basis of our claim that we won the election in general, and the presidential ballot in particular," Tsvangirai's party said.

Police took computers and equipment, and searched for key election-related documents, the party said.

Noel Kututwa, chairman of the independent monitoring organization, said officers from the feared Central Intelligence Organization said they were looking for "subversive material likely to overthrow the government using unconstitutional means."

Kututwa told The Associated Press the raid appeared aimed at intimidating and weakening his organization ahead of any possible presidential runoff.

The official Zimbabwe Electoral Commission stopped announcing results after releasing tallies for legislative contests showing the ruling party lost control of Parliament for the first time since independence in 1980. A recount for 23 constituencies instigated by the ruling party appears aimed at overturning those results.

Mugabe has been under intense international pressure to release the results of the presidential ballot - which independent monitors say have been known since the day after the vote.

Kututwa, of the observer group, said the intelligence officers intended to arrest him and his deputy but they were away from the office. He said both were now in hiding.

The head of South Africa's ruling African National Congress condemned Friday's raids, saying it appeared "somebody is sabotaging the elections" in Zimbabwe. Jacob Zuma told the AP the operations make the country resemble a police state.

Hundreds of opposition supporters have been abducted, tortured and assaulted in recent weeks in what independent religious and human rights groups call a violent crackdown on dissent. Tsvangirai's party says at least 14 of its supporters have been killed.

Mugabe's officials have accused the opposition of violence.

Human Rights Watch told the AP that a campaign against those perceived to have "voted wrongly" has escalated this week.

Carolyn Norris, the New York-based group's deputy director for Africa, said soldiers have joined in torturing and beating people in recent days. Previously, ruling party officials, militiamen and war veterans carried out the violence at informal torture centers in the countryside, the rights group said.

In one case, Norris said, a man's ear was cut off - reminiscent of Zimbabwe's seven-year bush war to end white minority rule, when guerrillas cut off the ears and tongues of people accused of being traitors.

She said the first reports of retaliation by opposition supporters have emerged, with ruling party supporters' homes set on fire in the central Mashonaland East and Manicaland provinces.

Tsvangirai's party had been urging its supporters not to retaliate, fearing it would give Mugabe reason for an even more severe crackdown.

Friday's raids came as the top U.S. envoy for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, was in the region on a diplomatic push to help resolve Zimbabwe's crisis. Speaking in South Africa Thursday, Frazer said: "We think in this situation we have a clear victor: Morgan Tsvangirai won, and perhaps outright."

But the State Department backed off Friday, with spokesman Sean McCormack telling reporters "there are a lot of indications" that Tsvangirai "may well have won," though he would not go as far as Frazer.

Frazer flew to Angola on Friday and met with President Eduardo dos Santos, a staunch Mugabe ally who himself has not held elections since 1992.

Mugabe also sent a delegation that met with dos Santos. Afterward, Zimbabwe's former Security Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa told reporters he expected the election results to be announced in three or four days.

Angola, meanwhile, said Friday that a Chinese ship carrying arms destined for Zimbabwe had been allowed to dock at the Angolan port of Lobito, but only to unload cargo for Angola.

The possibility the weapons could be used by Mugabe's regime to clamp down on dissent had prompted protests from the U.S. and across the region. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Thursday the weapons would be returned to China.

Mugabe was in Zimbabwe's second city of Bulawayo Friday, opening his nation's trade fair, an annual fixture for more than 40 years. Organizers said just 21 foreign exhibitors, mainly from neighboring states and Asia, attended.

Meanwhile, U.N. officials said that the Security Council will get a briefing on the situation in Zimbabwe next week from the U.N. Secretariat. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has repeatedly called for the presidential vote results to be released.

Associated Press writers Celean Jacobson and Michelle Faul in Johannesburg, South Africa and Casimiro Siona in Luanda, Angola, contributed to this report.