In a development that many took to signal a crackdown by the Zimbabwean government, the prominent human rights and political violence monitor Jestina Mukoko was seized by apparent state security agents at her home near Harare early Wednesday, sources said.
Mukoko is national director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, which published comprehensive reports on political violence and rights abuses during the turbulent March-June election period when attacks mainly targeting opposition members claimed 200 lives or more.
Before taking charge of the Peace Project, Mukoko was a well-known broadcaster.
A statement by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said Mukoko was abducted from her home around 5 a.m. by a group of about 15 men in plain clothes.
Many observers assumed that her abductors were Central Intelligence Organization agents. The feared secret police agency is attached to the office of President Robert Mugabe.
Witnesses said the group which took Mukoko away threatened to kill the security guard at her home when he did not immediately open a gate to the house as ordered.
Sources familiar with the state security apparatus said they believed the same organization was responsible for an attempt made on Saturday to abduct Mukoko.
Her seizure follows those of 16 members of the Movement for Democratic Change taken into custody suspected state agents in Mashonaland West province who remain unaccounted for after more than a month despite high court orders that they be arraigned or released.
Attorney Otto Saki of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that all efforts to locate Mukoko have hit a brick wall.
The international human rights group Amnesty International said Zimbabwean authorities must immediately disclose the whereabouts of Mukoko, adding that the organization would hold the government of Zimbabwe responsible for her safety.
"The abduction or arrest of Jestina Mukoko is part of an established pattern of harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders by Zimbabwean authorities in an attempt to discourage them from documenting and publicizing the violations that are taking place," Amnesty International Africa Program Director Erwin van der Borght stated.
Washington-based Freedom House said Mukoko's abduction "appears to signal that Robert Mugabe's regime has renewed its campaign of violence against the country's civil society."
Freedom House Deputy Executive Director Thomas Melia said the kidnapping was "part of a disturbing new escalation in abductions and other human rights abuses in Zimbabwe."
Three Peace Project employees were arrested on Nov. 20 in the Harare suburb of Budiriro for taking pictures to document the deteriorating social and health environment - Budiriro has been hit particularly hard by the cholera epidemic which has claimed more than 500 lives.
The three activists were released two days later after paying small fines.