Zimbabwean authorities on Wednesday launched what appeared to be a major new offensive against the political opposition to President Robert Mugabe, even as the 83-year-old leader headed to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, for a regional summit called to discuss the crisis in Zimbabwe and alleged beatings of opposition officials.
Police cordoned off the downtown Harare building housing the headquarters of the MDC faction headed by party founder Morgan Tsvangirai around 11 a.m. Wednesday, battering down doors, seizing computers and detaining officials and staff there, including Tsvangirai - though he was soon released, sources said.
Tsvangirai had been scheduled to hold a news conference at 12:30 p.m. to sound an alert about the rising number of MDC members being abducted and beaten by what the opposition party alleges are agents of the Central Intelligence Organization.
Police Spokesman Assistant Commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena said police raided the MDC offices as part of an investigation into a recent wave of firebombings of police posts and other targets, including a Harare-Bulawayo passenger train.
Authorities have accused the opposition of organizing the attacks, but officials of both MDC factions have denied any involvement and say they do not condone violence.
Police also conducted early morning raids on the homes of senior officials in Harare, bundling them into trucks, including Glenview Member of Parliament Paul Madzore and his wife. Budiriro Member Emmanuel Chisvuure escaped but police reportedly harassed his family. Many MDC officials and activists have gone into hiding.
Lawyers for the Tsvangirai faction said late Wednesday that police continued to hold about 60 officers and members of the opposition faction. Attorney Alec Muchadehama said that he and another lawyer had not been able to meet with their clients. Muchadehama said he would file an urgent application to the Harare high court first thing Thursday asking it to order authorities to allow them to see the prisoners.
The U.S. Department of State said Wednesday that the United States was "deeply concerned" about the detention of Tsvangirai and other MDC officials, and that it held President Mugabe "responsible for the safety of these Zimbabwean citizens."
The U.S. statement said that recent events "make clear that the Mugabe regime is determined to preserve its power, regardless of the cost" to the country. It said, "The regime is attempting to blame the violence on the opposition itself. The international community rejects this patently false effort to blame the victims."
Germany, now holding the European Union presidency, said the EU is “deeply concerned” about Wednesday’s detention of Tsvangirai, demanding access to him and to other arrested opposition politicians.
German Foreign Ministry spokesman Jens Ploetner said those held must be granted immediate access to legal and medical assistance. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett also condemned the arrests.
Correspondent Irwin Chifera of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe was at the scene at the MDC faction's Harvest House headquarters and described the scene.
Tsvangirai told reporter Blessing Zulu the blitz was another intimidation tactic by the Mugabe government reflecting its increasingly isolated position. Zulu spoke with Muchadehama soon after the raid when the number held was undetermined.
The continuing clampdown by Zimbabwean security forces on opposition figures has many observers baffled as to the strategy Harare is pursuing.
Wednesday’s blitz, coming just as the region’s leaders were meeting in Tanzania, led some to conclude that Mr. Mugabe is as and his inner circle are as disdainful of regional opinion as they are of criticism from the United States and Britain.
University of Zimbabwe Senior Lecturer John Makumbe told reporter Ndimyake Mwakalyelye that the government's increasing disregard for legal process reflects a last-ditch attempt by Mr. Mugabe's government to quash dissent.
Separately from the police arrests, many activists have been abducted, been severely beaten and in some cases been dumped in remote locations outside Harare.
Glenview MP Paul Madzore, his wife and lodgers were beaten up and taken away late Tuesday. Opposition sources said their whereabouts and fate were still unknown.
Tsvangirai advisor Ian Makone and his wife Theresa, chairwoman for Mashonaland East for the faction, were abducted late Tuesday with organizing secretary Pineal Denga. They also were still missing. Joshua Mukoyi of Kuwadzana, whose two sons are MDC activists, was abducted for the second time, and remained missing.
Kambuzuma MP Willis Madzimure, Tsvangirai faction spokesman for Harare Province, told reporter Patience Rusere that he believed the abductions were intended to intimidate opposition members and weaken their resolve in the struggle.
One MDC official abducted Tuesday was found beaten and dumped in the woods in Mutorashanga, Mashonaland West, about 100 kilometers from Harare.
Local mine workers found Last Maengahama unconscious and covered in blood. He was taken by police to a local hospital and transferred to Harare's Avenues Clinic.
Armed men believed to be operatives of the feared Central Intelligence Organization snatched Maengahama in Borrowdale, a Harare suburb, following a memorial ceremony held Tuesday morning for slain activist Gift Tandare.
Tandare was shot to death by police on March 11 during a protest.
The MDC's organizing secretary for Harare Province, Toendepi Shonhe, visited Maengahama at Avenues Clinic early Wednesay. He told reporter Jonga Kandemiiri that Maengahama’s entire body was swollen as a result of the beatings.