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LUSAKA - Zambia, one of Africa's more stable countries, is facing unprecedented turbulence as opposition leader Michael Sata strengthens his campaign against the government.
Political observers said they feared campaigns by Sata, aka "King Cobra", and his supporters could cause tensions.
"The political situation is becoming tense. We are concerned with the current volatile situation," said a Western diplomat who refused to be identified.
Since its independence in 1964, Zambia has managed to avoid the kind of upheaval that has plagued its neighbours, Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe.
Despite winning international praise for his handling of the economy, President Levy Mwanawasa's record came under attack from the populist Sata during the campaigns for the presidential elections in September.
Though Mwanawasa was returned to power, Sata has continued to punch holes in the government's performance, promising more jobs and lower taxes to his supporters.
Though none of the recent rallies has turned violent, protests by Sata supporters after his defeat in the elections ended in clashes with riot police and in looting.
Simon Zukas, a retired politician who served as minister in the government of Frederick Chiluba, said Sata was playing with fire.
"If Sata wants to be president he has to be more responsible and not just play to the crowd," said Zukas.
The government banned the opposition's rallies last week but reversed the decision after widespread condemnation.
"I think Mwanawasa is over-reacting. Sata has to be allowed to campaign because he has freedom of speech and of assembly as guaranteed by the constitution," said Sakwiba Sikota, a lawmaker with the opposition United Liberal Party.
The government, however, holds Sata responsible for the build-up in tension.
"If Sata could hold his fire, everyone else, including ourselves, would do so.
"Let's make peace as a nation," said Minister of Defence George Mpombo.
Mwanawasa has warned Sata that he will be jailed for treason if he continues to incite "Zambians to rise against a democratically elected government".
But Sata has shown no sign of backing down, arguing that he is preparing in case the presidency becomes vacant before the next elections, scheduled for 2011.- Sapa-AFP