- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Police arrested Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader and charged him with treason yesterday as hundreds of security forces took control of the streets of the capital and prevented marches demanding the resignation of embattled President Robert Mugabe.

Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was arrested after a news conference in which he vowed to press ahead with protests against Mr. Mugabe, whom he accused of being an illegitimate and increasingly incompetent leader.

“From now onwards, we will embark on rolling mass action at strategic times of our choice and without any warning to the dictatorship,” he told reporters. “More action is certainly on the way.”

But Mr. Tsvangirai acknowledged that the unprecedented security crackdown had thwarted huge street demonstrations his opposition movement had planned for yesterday to cap five days of strikes and protests.

Government forces beat protesters, fired warning shots in the air and trained water cannons and tear gas canisters on demonstrators. The strikes have ground the battered economy to a halt in the biggest opposition challenge to Mr. Mugabe’s 23-year authoritarian rule.

The State Department yesterday slammed the arrest and urged the Mugabe government to begin political talks with its opponents.

“We strongly condemn this arrest,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. “The heightened climate of confrontation and violence in Zimbabwe this week, we think, heightens the urgent need for dialogue between the government and the opposition.”

Ahead of yesterday’s planned marches, soldiers, police and ruling-party militiamen flooded the capital in the largest security operation since independence in 1980. Military helicopters swooped over Harare’s skies, while military vehicles ferried troops through the city and police cars patrolled the streets.

Mr. Tsvangirai was arrested at his home yesterday.

“He is being charged with treason for the many statements he has been making calling for the violent removal of the president,” said police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena.

Treason carries a potential death penalty in Zimbabwe. Mr. Tsvangirai already is on trial on a separate treason charge that accuses him of plotting to assassinate Mr. Mugabe two years ago, a charge the MDC leader rejects.

Shortly before his arrest, Mr. Tsvangirai said support for the strike and the government crackdown showed that Mr. Mugabe remained in power only through force.

“It is generally agreed he has become a liability to the nation,” Mr. Tsvangirai said.

Other regional African leaders have urged Mr. Mugabe to enter into negotiations with the opposition, but he has refused, saying the MDC must first drop a lawsuit challenging his election and acknowledge him as the legitimate leader of Zimbabwe.

The MDC sued after the presidential election last year that it maintained was rigged. Most independent observers said the election was deeply flawed.

The government, under draconian new security laws, had declared weeklong protests and work stoppages illegal. Mr. Tsvangirai was briefly arrested Monday, the first day.

The opposition blames Mr. Mugabe for driving the country into political and economic ruin. There are shortages of food, medicine, fuel and currency, and annual inflation is at 269 percent. Widespread starvation has been avoided only with international aid.

Reinforcements of police and troops have been deployed across the country. In the country’s second-largest city, Bulawayo, opposition officials said troops in full combat gear were patrolling the streets.

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