- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe | The leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition was detained by police for about eight hours Wednesday amid ominous signs the government is tightening its grip on the country less than four weeks before a presidential runoff election.

Morgan Tsvangirai, who returned 12 days ago to face President Robert Mugabe in the June 27 runoff, was held with about 14 others from his Movement for Democratic Change at a police station north of Bulawayo before being released late in the day, his spokesman said. No charges were filed against them.

Mr. Tsvangirai’s detention had been condemned by the United States, Britain, Germany and the human rights group Amnesty International.

Among those who had been held with Mr. Tsvangirai were the party’s vice president, Thokozane Kupe, and chairman, Lovemore Moyo. They were stopped by police at a roadblock while campaigning in towns north of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, said Tsvangirai spokesman George Sibotshiwe.

Mr. Tsvangirai, 56, says he won the first round of the election outright and that official results released May 2 showing a runoff was needed were fraudulent.

“Mugabe is determined to turn the whole country into a war zone in order to subvert the will of the people and steal the June 27 election by any means possible,” Mr. Tsvangirai said in Bulawayo earlier Wednesday.

The opposition leader left Zimbabwe after the March 29 vote and delayed his return home from South Africa after his party said he was the target of a military assassination plot.

Independent human rights groups say opposition supporters have been beaten and killed by government and ruling party thugs to ensure the 84-year-old Mr. Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, wins the second round. He trailed Mr. Tsvangirai in the first round.

Zimbabwe’s collapsing economy was a major concern of voters during the first round of voting. People are going hungry in what was once the region’s breadbasket, with the world’s highest inflation rate putting staples out of reach.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack urged the Zimbabwean government “to create an atmosphere where those who have political views different from the government can speak out free from intimidation and violence. Sadly, this has not been the case.”

Amnesty International said Mr. Tsvangirai’s detention was “part of a sudden, sharp and dangerous crackdown on political opposition in the run-up to the elections.”

The group also raised concerns about “severely tightening restrictions” placed by the government on international aid agencies distributing food and other assistance to Zimbabweans.

Care International has been ordered to halt operations pending an investigation of allegations it was campaigning for the opposition. Care denies that was the case.

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