msnbc.com news services
updated 6/19/2008 12:46:01 PM ET 2008-06-19T16:46:01

Four opposition party activists were killed and three homes firebombed near Zimbabwe's capital as militants continued an intimidation campaign ahead of a runoff election, the country's opposition said Thursday.

The activists were abducted Wednesday in the township of Chitungwiza, 15 miles south of Harare, and were assaulted with iron bars, clubs and guns, said Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change.

The victims were forced onto trucks and taken away by militias chanting slogans of Mugabe's party, witnesses said. The bodies were found early Thursday, he said.

In a separate incident, three Chitungwiza opposition councilmen and their families fled their homes and escaped injury when their homes were set alight by gasoline bombs Wednesday night, he said.

Attempts to reach Zimbabwean police for confirmation of the firebombing were not immediately successful.

Chamisa said militants linked to Mugabe's party and army troops patrolled the township for several days, visiting houses at night and threatening occupants. The opposition says more than 60 of its activists have been killed in recent weeks.

Independent human rights activists have implicated police, soldiers and Mugabe party militants in the violence, thought to be aimed at ensuring victory over opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai.

Doctors at the main Parirenyatwa hospital in Harare said Thursday they admitted victims injured in assaults in several townships on the outskirts of Harare in recent days as political violence that has plagued rural areas spread to the city.

'Terror campaign'
A senior Western diplomat in the region, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the bloodshed was spreading.

"It's time really that we moved beyond calling this a campaign of violence. This is terror, plain and simple. This is a terror campaign that the Joint Operations Command has launched weeks ago," the diplomat said.

He added that militias backing Mugabe's ZANU-PF party were now active in Harare. "The atmosphere is violent. The violence is not abating, indeed it is spreading to areas where it has not historically spread before."

Residents of Harare's well-to-do suburbs also reported gangs of militants forcing household domestic workers and family members to attend meetings known as a "pungwe," a colloquial term for night-long political indoctrination used by militants since the independence war that swept Mugabe to power in 1980.

Mugabe has threatened to return the country to war if he does not win the runoff June 27.

"They came and dragged my workers to the vlei," overgrown grassland nearby, Oliver Mberi said. "You'd think we are already at war." He said neighbors reported employees living in the dormitory townships fleeing violence in townships seen as opposition strongholds.

Mayor's 4-year-old son seized
On Monday night, Abigail Chiroto, the wife of MDC mayor elect of Harare, was seized from her house in the suburb of Hatcliffe with her four-year-old son Ashley, family friends said Thursday. The friends, who did not want to be identified for fear of repercussions, said the two were taken to a nearby farming area where Chiroto's body was found Tuesday.

The boy, who was left at a nearby police station, told family members that he saw his mother being blindfolded and taken off into the bush. When Chiroto's body was found, she was still wearing a blindfold. Her body was identified Wednesday by her husband Emmanuel who was out of town at the time.

Mugabe "is behaving like a warlord," opposition party spokesman Nqobizitha Mlilo said. "This violence must stop."

The opposition claims Tsvangirai won the country's presidential elections, but official results said a runoff was needed because there was no outright majority win.

Meanwhile, a group of southern African ministers said Thursday that the looming runoff presidential election is unlikely to be free and fair. It was the strongest regional condemnation yet of pre-poll violence.

"There is every sign that these elections will never be free nor fair," Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe told a news conference. He spoke in Tanzania on behalf of a troika of nations from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) responsible for peace and security matters.

Tanzania is also current chairman of the African Union.

Membe said he and the foreign ministers of Swaziland and Angola would write to their presidents "so that they do something urgently so that we can save Zimbabwe."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also 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.

Ballot rigging?
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.

On Thursday, police presented their case for charging Biti with treason — which can carry the death penalty — and other offenses, including publishing false statements. Formal charges were expected to be filed later Thursday.

The false statement charge was related to Biti's announcement that Tsvangirai won the first round of presidential voting March 29 before official results were released. The opposition claims Tsvangirai won outright, but according to official results, he came first but not with the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a runoff.

Tsvangirai, who attended Biti's hearing, told reporters during a break that he objected to "the manner in which this whole case is being handled.

"It's all part of harassment," Tsvangirai added, saying time spent in court was time away from campaigning.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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