Zimbabwe’s opposition party said Thursday that four of its activists were killed in a firebombing near Harare amid growing concerns that President Robert Mugabe will use a violent crackdown to steal an upcoming runoff election.
The opposition has said more than 60 of its activists have been killed in recent weeks. Independent human rights activists have implicated police and soldiers as well as Mugabe party militants in the violence, thought to be aimed at ensuring victory over opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai.
Movement for Democratic Change spokesman Nqobizitha Mlilo said militants linked to Mugabe’s party were seen in the area before Wednesday night’s firebomb attack on the home of one party activist. Mlilo said the activist and three colleagues were killed, an unusually high one-day toll.
Mugabe “is behaving like a warlord,” Mlilo said. “This violence must stop.”
Attempts to reach Zimbabwean police for confirmation of the firebombing were not immediately successful.
The opposition claims Tsvangirai won the country’s presidential elections, but official results said a runoff, to be held in just over a week, was needed because there was no outright majority win.
South African President Thabo Mbeki held talks with Tsvangirai on Wednesday and later with Mugabe amid increasing international concern that the June 27 runoff will not be free and fair. Mbeki, who has steadfastly refused to publicly rebuke Mugabe, left late Wednesday without speaking to reporters. His spokesman did not respond to calls seeking comment Thursday.
Mugabe spokesman George Charamba was quoted in Thursday’s edition of the state newspaper The Herald as saying Mbeki came merely to review election preparations.
Mbeki says confrontation with Mugabe could backfire. But Mbeki’s decision to spend his 66th birthday with the 84-year-old Zimbabwean autocrat underlined the immense pressure he is under at home and abroad. Mbeki is being urged to take a tougher stance or show that his quiet tactics can work to persuade Mugabe to stop the violence before the election.
Tsvangirai has called on Mbeki to step down as mediator, accusing him of bias toward Mugabe.
Mlilo expressed little confidence that Mbeki’s visit would make a difference, noting “four people died that very day” the South African visited.
“Mugabe doesn’t seem to care what the international community thinks,” Mlilo said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanded action Wednesday.
“It is time for leaders of Africa to say to President Mugabe that the people of Zimbabwe deserve a free and fair election,” she said after a meeting in Washington with Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga — one of the few African leaders who has criticized Mugabe.
“You cannot intimidate opponents, you cannot put opponents in jail, you cannot threaten them with jail on charges of treason and expect to be respected in the international community,” Rice said.
Most observers praised the conduct of the first round — although not the delay in releasing official results. But there are growing fears that Mugabe will steal the second round through violence and ballot rigging.
In addition to the violence, Tsvangirai’s party has seen rallies banned and campaign stops blocked by police, and its No. 2, Tendai Biti, has been arrested on charges of treason. The opposition says the charges are politically motivated.