Riot police and intelligence officers Friday ransacked opposition party headquarters and the offices of independent election monitors, hauling away material documenting the apparent election defeat of President Robert Mugabe.
Hundreds were arrested in the strongest signal yet that Zimbabwe's longtime leader intends to cling to power in the face of a growing global clamor for him to step aside.
The raids come the day after a U.S. envoy declared opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai had won the March election.
Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change and the independent Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network both claim Tsvangirai won the March 29 vote, based on their own surveys of results posted at ballot stations. Official results have yet to be released.
About 250 heavily armed riot police wielding batons arrested about 300 people in a swoop on the opposition's Harvest House offices, the opposition party reported.
Pregnant women and mothers with babies strapped to their backs were among people herded into a bus and a pickup truck, witnesses said.
The party said they included scores of supporters brutalized in a postelection campaign of revenge in the countryside who had sought refuge at the party offices in the capital, Harare.
"Their homes were burned," Thokozani Khupe, a party vice president said. "Some have been brutally assaulted."
Assistant Police Commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena said those arrested were suspected of "crimes that were committed in the countryside."
Raids aimed at election information
But the raids appeared aimed at collecting any information showing Mugabe and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union lost the March 29 elections.
"The police ... say they want the documents that the party has that form the basis of our claim that we won the election in general, and the presidential ballot in particular," Tsvangirai's party said in a statement.
Police took computers and equipment, and searched for key election-related documents, the party said.
Noel Kututwa, chairman of the independent monitoring organization, said officers from the feared Central Intelligence Organization "said they were looking for subversive material likely to overthrow (the) government using unconstitutional means."
Kututwa told The Associated Press the raid appeared aimed at intimidating and weakening his organization ahead of any possible presidential runoff.
The official Zimbabwe Electoral Commission stopped announcing results after publishing those for legislative seats showing that the ruling party had lost its control of Parliament for the first time since independence in 1980. An ongoing recount for 23 constituencies instigated by the ruling party appears aimed at overturning those results.
Mugabe has been under intense international pressure to publish the results of presidential balloting held the same day — results that independent monitors say were known the day after the vote.
Kututwa, of the observer group, said the intelligence officers had wanted to arrest him and his deputy, Rindai Chipfunde-Vava, but that they both were away from the office. He said they were both now in hiding.
Hundreds of opposition supporters have been abducted, tortured and assaulted in recent weeks in what independent religious and human rights groups call a violent crackdown on dissent. Tsvangirai's party says at least 10 of its supporters have been killed.
Mugabe's officials have accused the opposition of violence.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based international organization, told The Associated Press that the campaign against people perceived to have "voted wrongly" has escalated this week.
Carolyn Norris, HRW's deputy director for Africa, said soldiers have joined in torturing and beating people in recent days. Previously, Human Rights Watch had reported that ruling party officials, militia and war veterans were carrying out the violence at informal torture centers in the countryside.
Hundreds of homes have been torched, the organization reported.
In one case, Norris said, a man's ear was cut off. During Zimbabwe's seven-year bush war to end white minority rule, guerrillas would cut off the ears and tongues of people accused of being traitors.
Norris also said they were getting the first reports of opposition supporters retaliating — by burning the homes of ruling party supporters in the central Mashonaland East and Manicaland provinces.
Tsvangirai's party had been urging its supporters not to retaliate, fearing it would give Mugabe reason for an even more severe crackdown.
U.S. envoy: Opposition victorious
Friday's raids come as the top U.S. envoy for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, is in the region on a diplomatic push to help resolve Zimbabwe's crisis.
"We think in this situation we have a clear victor: Morgan Tsvangirai won, and perhaps outright," U.S. envoy Jendayi Frazer said in South Africa on Thursday.
In Washington Friday, the U.S. State Department backed off her comments. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that there are a lot of indications that Tsvangirai "may well have won," but would not go as far as Frazer.
Frazer, assistant U.S. secretary of state for African affairs, on Friday flew to Angola and met with President Eduardo dos Santos, a staunch ally of Mugabe who himself has not held elections since 1992.
Mugabe sent a delegation that met with dos Santos before Fraser. After that meeting, Zimbabwe's former Security Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa told reporters that he expected results to be announced in three or four days. Mnangagwa also said he expected there would be a presidential runoff.
Fraser is also scheduled to travel to Zambia for talks with President Levy Mwanawasa, the current head of the Southern African Development Community of 15 nations, which is thought to have some sway over the intransigent Zimbabwean leader.