Zimbabwe police Friday sealed off Bulawayo City Hall and the offices of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in the city, blocking plans by party founder Morgan Tsvangirai to announce his candidacy for president in the election due next year.
Sources late Friday reported a tense situation in Zimbabwe's second largest city.
Officials of the MDC faction led by Tsvangirai said police arrested a youth organizer and beat several other members. Police have banned rallies in Harare Province for three months and imposed a partial curfew on certain suburbs of the capital where support for one faction or another of the MDC is particularly strong.
Authorities widened the prohibition on political rallies Friday to the Harare satellite city of Chitungwiza on Friday. The police crackdown in Bulawayo confirmed reports from intelligence sources that the ban on political meetings was in fact nationwide.
Tsvangirai's party released a copy of the remarks he had planned to deliver Friday.
His prepared remarks identified "a clear mood of rebellion among Zimbabweans" and declared that by "arbitrarily banning peaceful political protest and rallies in Harare, the regime has for all practical purposes declared a State of Emergency."
Tsvangirai continued: "We are aware that more is coming. We are ready to resist. We remain undeterred by these desperate acts to deny our people their basic right to assemble and to express themselves." He said his MDC faction would launch its presidential campaign on the premise that an election "must be held" in 2008.
Police have been holding a number of MDC officials and supporters for the past week, after demonstrations Feb. 16 in Harare and an attempted rally Feb. 18 in the Harare suburb of Highfield where Tsvangirai had intended to announce his candidacy.
On Friday, police released senior MDC officials Grace Kwinjeh, deputy international affairs secretary, parliamentarian Willas Madzimure of Kambuzuma, Harare, and deputy Tsvangirai faction treasurer Elton Mangoma. Each paid Z$50,000 bail.
MDC sources said the faction intends to ask the high court to bring contempt charges against police for disrupting the planned rally last Sunday in Highfield. The court had issued a ruling the day before the event saying that the faction could hold it. But the police turned out in force with batons, tear gas and water cannon to block it.
State security Minister Didymus Mutasa, also ZANU-PF secretary for administration, told the state-controlled Herald newspaper that his party supports the rally ban.
Secretary General Tendai Biti of the Tsvangirai faction, who was to address the Bulawayo rally on Friday, told reporter Blessing Zulu that police cited the potential for violence as a justification for canceling the rally at the last minute.
Political analysts castigated the government for banning political meetings while officials of the ruling party are proceeding with massive public celebrations Saturday in Gweru, the Midlands capital, of President Robert Mugabe's 83rd birthday.
The event has preempted normal government business. Only one government deputy minister and a handful of ruling ZANU-PF party members of parliament showed up in the house on Thursday, leading to the adjournment of proceedings.
Political commentator Chido Makunike told reporter Carole Gombakomba of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the government has its priorities all wrong.