Tuesday, October 26, 2004

JOHANNESBURG — Zimbabwean police arrested a delegation from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) yesterday, prompting threats of a blockade at the main border crossing and raising tensions between the two countries’ leaders.

COSATU is an important ally of South African President Thabo Mbeki, who until now has supported his Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe, despite strong international pressure to condemn Mr. Mugabe for rolling back democratic institutions.

The 12-member COSATU fact-finding team was confronted on its arrival at the airport in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, on Monday night by men thought to be from the feared Central Intelligence Organization (CIO).

Human rights groups in Zimbabwe, including Amnesty International, have accused the CIO, which operates from Mr. Mugabe’s office, of torturing union leaders, journalists and members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The officials told the visitors that they would be granted entry only if they promised not to meet with any church groups or other organizations that are “critical of the government.”

However, police moved in when the delegation held its first meeting yesterday with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) “and marched the COSATU members back to their hotel,” COSATU spokesman Patrick Craven said last night.

“There, it was explained that the government had banned the mission, and our members were ordered to leave the country immediately. They refused and remained in the hotel until forcibly loaded onto a bus to the airport.”

The last flight to Johannesburg had left already, so the delegation was returned to its hotel to await deportation today.

Last night, COSATU Vice President Violet Seboni described the treatment as “appalling.”

“They have been rude to us, just so bad and ugly,” she said. “We had not scheduled meetings with either the government or the MDC, just the ZCTU and some local organizations. Who could object to that?

“But the world can now see that in Zimbabwe, there is no tolerance, no democracy.”

At its head office in Johannesburg last night, a COSATU spokesman warned the Mugabe government not to harass the delegation.

“If any members of the mission are attacked or injured, the federation will organize a blockade of the South Africa-Zimbabwe border within 48 hours,” the spokesman said.

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