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Arrests in Zimbabwe Arms Case Widen, Observers See Political Motive by Harare

Zimbabwean authorities expanded arrests of alleged conspirators against the state to 16 people Thursday, including members of the national police and the army as well as the political opposition, after seizing a cache of arms in the eastern city of Mutare.

Observers voiced skepticism on allegations that a coup plot in the making had been dismantled, and political analysts as well as opposition spokesmen said it was more likely that the government of President Robert Mugabe was opening an offensive against the opposition at a time when it has effectively undergone a split.

At the center of the arms investigation is a man named Peter Hitschmann, said to have served in the pre-independence Rhodesian military as well as the armed forces of the post-1980 Zimbabwean state. Sources including the state-run Herald newspaper and police said weapons including seven Uzi machine guns, an AK-47 assault rifle, some 25 other small arms, and thousands of rounds of ammunition were found at his home in Mutare, 260 kilometers from Harare on the border with Mozambique.

An alleged associate of Hitschmann, one Thando Sibanda, has also been arrested in the wake of the announcement Tuesday of the seizure of an arms cache.

On Thursday the authorities cast a wider net that pulled in a number of members of the armed forces and the police, state media and official sources said.

Among officials of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change being held were Giles Mutsekwa, MDC spokesman on defense issues, and Manicaland party chairman Roy Bennett, released from prison in mid-2005 after serving nine months hard labor for shoving ruling ZANU-PF Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa in May 2004 in the course of a bitter debate on land reform. He was then a member of parliament.

The MDC's Manicaland youth chairman, Knowledge Nyamuka, was also arrested. His lawyer, Chris Ndlovu, said Thursday that his client would appear in court on Friday for arraignment on charges of violating the Public Order and Security Act.

A lawyer for Mutsekwa, Tafadzwa Mugabe, said he had been trying to gain access to his client, but that Mutsekwa had been moved from one police station to another.

The whereabouts and circumstances of other suspects could not be determined as police spokesmen referred media inquiries to inaccessible higher authorities.

Reporter Patience Rusere of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe asked opposition member of parliament and chief whip Innocent Gonese for his view of the murky case.

The International Bar Association weighed in on the case, charging that Zimbabwean authorities have deprived those it has detained of a timely court appearance.

Association spokeswoman Gugulethu Moyo told reporter Ndimyake Mwakalyele that Harare has often ignored due process when dealing with senior opposition figures.

British human rights activist Peter Tatchell, who Zimbabwe’s official press has accused of financing the alleged plot to overthrow the government, denied any connection with the alleged conspiracy or with the Zimbabwe Freedom Movement, an anti-Mugabe group that vowed armed resistance in 2003 but has given few signs of life since.

Tatchell acknowledged providing media liaison for the obscure group three years ago when it first appeared, but said he is not a member and has no current contact.

Tatchell's main cause has been the defense of gay rights in Africa and elsewhere, but he turned up in Zimbabwe headlines in 2001 when he attempted a citizen’s arrest of Mr. Mugabe on a Brussels street and was knocked unconscious by bodyguards. He subsequently was arrested in London for attempting to have Mugabe detained. Yet Tatchell also claims to have raised money for ZANU-PF in the liberation period.

South African-based researcher Chris Maroleng of the Institute of Security Studies said the timing of the arms seizure was interesting. He told Studio 7 reporter Blessing Zulu that the hue and cry highlights the government's growing concern that soaring prices and plunging standards of living could lead to a popular uprising.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...