Zimbabwe in cloud of fear and loathing

As the date for Zimbabwe's presidential run-off approaches, state-sponsored violence has escalated sharply, according to human rights workers and opposition politicians in Zimbabwe.

Andrew Makoni and Harrison Nkomo, both young human rights lawyers, fled to South Africa last week, fearing for their lives.

Five of Makoni's clients, all activists for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), have been murdered over the past few weeks.

Makoni said three of them had their eyes gouged out and their tongues cut off.

"I received threats last year, and was incarcerated for my work, and I stayed in the country," he said, speaking from a hotel in Johannesburg where he is staying.

"But this time we have to take the threats seriously because there seems to be a systematic campaign to eliminate those with opposing views.

"People are being abducted and their decomposing bodies are being found."

Nkomo said: "I received credible information that I was on a list of lawyers who are being targeted by state security agents for elimination. It seems they want to remove anyone seen to be standing in their way."

Hospitals in Harare have been kept busy dealing with an endless flow of bloodied and bruised patients, who have been subjected to brutal beatings.

"The violence we're seeing is more life-threatening than it was," said one human rights worker, who did not want to be identified.

"There are horrific injuries. Bones are not just fractured, they are shattered. Victims speak of being handcuffed and then beaten."

The violence is worst in rural areas, where the MDC did well in the March 29 election at the expense of the ruling Zanu-PF.

"There are hit squads operating, and the level of attacks is increasing," said Misheck Marava, an MDC senator from south-eastern Zimbabwe.

Marava represents the town of Zaka where, last week, an MDC office was attacked with gunfire and petrol bombs, leaving charred bodies in the wreckage, according to the opposition.

"My homestead has been attacked three times," he said.

"My wife was beaten and the husband of one of our councillors was shot and had his ribs broken. It's very, very bad."

Morgan Tsvangirai is still campaigning, but his supporters have been targeted.

Marava said that the government's suspension of the work of aid agencies would have a terrible effect in his district: "We are now at the mercy of God."

Aid groups believe that their field work has been banned in part to prevent them witnessing government abuses.

"We are the eyes and ears of the international community," one foreign aid worker said.

"And it's clear that the authorities don't want us out in the countryside seeing what they're going to do."

In one of the worst attacks, Human Rights Watch said six men were beaten to death in Chiweshe in Mashonaland Central province last month at a "re-education" meeting meant to compel MDC supporters to vote for Robert Mugabe in the presidential run-off.

Another 70 men and women were tortured, including a 76-year-old woman who was thrashed in front of assembled villagers.

Though the government blames the MDC for the violence, all independent reports suggest that the bulk of attacks are carried out by state security organs, as well as Zanu-PF militia.

But human rights workers said it is not wholly one-sided.

"We're starting to hear stories about resistance being organised and retaliatory attacks," one said.

"A couple of Zanu-PF supporters were hospitalised after the Chiweshe incident."

Human Rights Watch said it has now confirmed at least 2000 victims of violence, adding that this might be a conservative figure.

"Fear is being instilled in people to such an extent that they're fleeing to urban areas," said Blessing Chebundo, an MDC MP for KweKwe.

"Zanu-PF youth militia and army men are forcing people to wear Zanu-PF T-shirts and they're confiscating the ID cards of people they think are MDC supporters so they won't be able to vote."

Chebundo described how, after a Zanu-PF rally last Friday, government supporters went on the rampage, killing an MDC supporter.

"No one in the area had the courage to help him - they were too scared," he said.

A human rights activist in Zimbabwe said: "Almost everyone you talk to seems to have a story of intimidation to tell.

"People are being threatened and told they must vote 'correctly'." - BBC News.