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Suspects in Arms Case Held Incommunicado, Central Figure Linked to Zimbabwe Police

Lawyers representing opposition members accused in connection with an arms cache authorities say was found in eastern Zimbabwe have asked the high court in Mutare to order police to produce their clients, being held incommunicado, for arraignment.

State media have reported that the alleged arms cache, including at least one AK-47, other small arms, and thousands of rounds of ammunition, was intended for use in an attempted uprising. An obscure foreign-based group called the Zimbabwe Freedom Movement was said to have financed and organized the alleged conspiracy.

But the Zimbabwean political opposition and outside observers have charged that the government of President Robert Mugabe, fearing a popular revolt with food and fuel scarce nationwide the economy in tatters, has conjured up a coup in the making as a propaganda exercise and to further weaken a deeply divided opposition party.

Several of those held are officials of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in eastern Manicaland province. The lawyer for Manicaland MDC Youth Chairman Knowledge Nyamuka, one of those held, said his client had been expected to appear in court Friday to face charges under the Public Order and Security Act. But police failed to produce Nyamuka, saying further investigation was necessary.

Also detained are Giles Mutsekwa, the member of parliament for Mutare North and the opposition's spokesman on defense issues, Manicaland MDC treasurer Brian James, and local MDC activist Thando Sibanda. Sources close to the case said Mutsekwa had been arrested in Harare and brought to Mutare, 260 kilometers to the east.

It could not be determined whether former MDC member of parliament Roy Bennett, now MDC Manicaland chairman, was among the opposition members held. Bennett spent nine months in prison in 2004-2005 serving a sentence imposed by the ruling party-controlled parliament for shoving a minister during a heated debate.

Some 16 people in all were said to be detained in various police stations in Mutare, among them members of the national police force and the army. Sources said army investigators were also involved. The murky case opened Tuesday with reports by state media that arms and ammunition had been seized at the Mutare home of one Peter Hitschmann, said to be a former member of the Rhodesian armed forces before the 1980 shift to black majority rule, and to have served in police units since then.

For more on efforts by lawyers to obtain the arraignment and release on bail of their clients, reporter Patience Rusere of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe spoke with Mutare attorney Chris Ndlovu, who is representing the detained opposition members.

More details emerged about Peter Hitschmann, the former Rhodesian army member who authorities say had a cache of military arms and ammunition at his Mutare home. Mutare sources said they were surprised by the allegations that Hitschmann was at the center of a plot to overturn the government of President Robert Mugabe.

One prominent Mutare resident who has known Hitschmann for many years is Bishop Trevor Manhanga, head of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe. He told reporter Rusere that he was aware that Hitschmann worked with local police in patrolling the nearby border with Mozambique on the lookout for "border jumpers."

For another perspective on Hitschmann, Patience spoke with Itai Zimunya, a Mutare-based advocacy officer for the Crisis Coalition of Zimbabwe, who related what he knew about Hitschmann and what people in Mutare were making of it all.

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