- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

Zimbabwe's political crisis could destabilize the entire southern African region if President Robert Mugabe does not respect the outcome of next week's elections, the State Department's top official for Africa told a congressional panel yesterday.
The violent election campaign, a growing food crisis and a potential flood of refugees could have "a very negative impact on the region" if Mr. Mugabe refuses to honor the vote, Walter H. Kansteiner III, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, warned during a hearing of the House International Relations Africa subcommittee.
Subcommittee Chairman Ed Royce, California Republican, urged the Bush administration to prepare contingency plans for the post-election period, citing Mr. Mugabe's use of troops to quell political dissent in 1982-83 in Zimbabwe's Matabeleland region.
"The violence appears to be escalating, and too often in the past in Africa, we have been caught off guard," Mr. Royce said.
Faced with a strong challenge from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mr. Mugabe has responded by clamping down on political rivals and the press. MDC candidate Morgan Tsvangirai faces a charge of treason for reportedly plotting to "eliminate" Mr. Mugabe, a charge Mr. Tsvangirai denies.
International observers are increasingly pessimistic about the presidential elections, and the European Union and the United States have imposed targeted sanctions on senior members of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party.
The MDC said yesterday that nine supporters were injured and 38 persons arrested when police raided an opposition-party office after a clash with supporters of the president.
The raid came while the MDC was giving election training to 500 members at an office in the capital, Harare.
Mr. Kansteiner said President Bush has been trying to enlist Zimbabwe's neighbors in the international pressure campaign for a fair election, although some of the country's neighbors have been reluctant to go public with their concerns.
Mr. Bush told the visiting presidents of Angola, Botswana and Mozambique during an Oval Office meeting Tuesday that Zimbabwe was an "embarrassment" to Africa, Mr. Kansteiner said.
Mr. Kansteiner painted a bleak picture of domestic conditions in Zimbabwe, saying the country faced major food shortages and had essentially gone "bust" under Mr. Mugabe's rule.
One big question mark is sentiment within the armed forces. Zimbabwean Defense Forces Commander Vitalis Zvinavashe warned in January that the army would not allow an opposition victory in the election, but Mr. Kansteiner said State Department analysts believed the majority of the country's top military leaders would respect the March 9-10 vote.
Although few expect the election to be free and fair, opposition forces are banking on an overwhelming turnout against Mr. Mugabe to make any attempt to rig the results more difficult.

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