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Mugabe says war vets ready for battle

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was quoted saying liberation war veterans are ready to take up arms to prevent the opposition winning a June 27 presidential run-off.
Image: Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe attends a youth convention in the capital on Friday. Mugabe raised the spectre of war by warning that his staunchest supporters are ready to take up arms rather than let the opposition triumph in the June 27 runoff elections.Desmond Kwande / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was quoted saying liberation war veterans are ready to take up arms to prevent the opposition winning a June 27 presidential run-off.

The state-owned Herald newspaper quoted Mugabe as telling supporters at a rally on Thursday that the veterans had asked him if they should be ready to fight.

“They came to my office after the (disputed March 29) elections and asked me: ’Can we take up arms?’,” Mugabe said.

Meantime, a judge has ordered police to bring the No. 2 opposition leader to court Saturday and explain why he should not be immediately released, an opposition lawyer said Friday.

Tendai Biti was arrested upon returning to Zimbabwe from neighboring South Africa Thursday. Police have refused to say where he was being held or when they might bring him to court, but have said he faces a treason charge, which can carry the death penalty.

Mugabe: MDC, 'whites' will not rule
The Herald said Mugabe told the war veterans that he did not want the country to go back to war but said Zimbabwe would never be ruled by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which won the first round.

“It will never happen that this land which we fought for should be taken by the MDC so that they can give it back to our former oppressors, the whites,” the paper quoted him as saying.

The war veterans, usually acting alongside the ruling ZANU-PF’s youth wing, have in the past been used as shock troops to intimidate government opponents.

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, human rights groups and Western powers accuse Mugabe of unleashing a brutal campaign to win the run-off.

Tsvangirai says 66 of his followers have been murdered but former guerrilla leader Mugabe, who has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980, blames the MDC for violence that has caused widespread international concern.

Earlier, the MDC said Zimbabwean police impounded two campaign buses used by Tsvangirai in the latest action against the opposition leader in the election campaign.

Tsvangirai, who has been detained four times in the past week and has had his own vehicle confiscated, would continue the campaign, MDC spokesman George Sibotshiwe said.

'Deeply worried' about Biti
Early on Friday, the Movement for Democratic Change said it was “deeply worried” about opposition leader Biti’s welfare. The party said it had dispatched a team of lawyers and human rights defenders “to every possible police station in Harare,” the party said.

“Given the gravity of the otherwise ludicrous charges that have been preferred against Mr. Biti, it is critical that Mr. Biti be able to have access to legal representation,” the party said.

The opposition called on Zimbabwe’s government to guarantee Biti’s safety.

Lawyer Selby Hwacha said the High Court order came in response to an opposition court plea.

The United States was among governments who said Biti’s arrest only deepened concerns the June 27 runoff would not be free and fair. It follows a March 29 first round in which Tsvangirai came in first in a field of four, but did not win the 50 percent plus one vote necessary to avoid a runoff.

Tsvangirai released
Also Friday, the party said Tsvangirai was released overnight after being detained by police. Tsvangirai was twice stopped by police as he tried to campaign Thursday, according to the party, held for about two hours the first time and then the second time late into the night before being released.

Such incidents have become common as Tsvangirai attempts to reach out to voters.

The Movement for Democratic Change said Friday that buses Tsvangirai was using on a campaign tour had been impounded by police, but said Tsvangirai had resumed campaigning.

In 2004, Tsvangirai was acquitted after a treason trial that lasted more than a year.

Botswana, a fellow member of the Southern African Development Community, was the first neighboring country to condemn Biti’s arrest. Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had summoned the Zimbabwean ambassador Thursday to express its concern over Biti’s arrest and Tsvangirai’s detentions.

“Botswana is alarmed by these arrests and detentions as they disrupt electoral activities of key players and intimidate the electorate thus undermining the process of holding a free, fair and democratic election,” said Clifford Maribe, spokesman for the ministry in Botswana.

“We are deeply disturbed by this unfolding situation of politically motivated arrests and intolerance which pose a serious threat to an outcome that reflects the will of the people of Zimbabwe,” Maribe said.

It was unusually strong language from a fellow African government. Zimbabwe’s neighbors, particularly regional power South Africa, have for the most part refused to confront Mugabe.

U.S.: Neighbors' pressure ineffective
The United States, long a sharp critic of Mugabe, said Thursday what pressure the neighbors had so far brought to bear had been ineffective. It called for immediate action by the U.N. Security Council.

Earlier Thursday, news had emerged that a shipment of 20 tons of U.S.-donated grains, beans and oil being sent to a school in eastern Zimbabwe was hijacked by security forces and then passed out to Mugabe backers at a pro-government rally.

In Washington, officials said the United States, which now holds the rotating presidency of the council, would try to raise the Zimbabwe issue next week.

Previous attempts to get the Security Council to make a statement on Zimbabwe have been thwarted by South Africa, an elected council member. South African President Thabo Mbeki, lead negotiator for African countries trying to mediate between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, argues criticizing Mugabe would only backfire.

In a speech Thursday at the end of a two-day parliamentary debate on his presidency, Mbeki said his priority was to help Zimbabwe find a solution through dialogue and negotiation rather than imposing a solution from abroad.

Food as a political weapon
In addition to being accused of orchestrating violence, Mugabe’s government has in recent weeks been accused of using food as a political weapon.

The government last week ordered independent aid agencies to stop work. Mugabe has accused foreign aid agencies of working with the opposition to topple him, but the effect of the crackdown has been to make millions of hungry Zimbabweans even more dependent on his government just as they are deciding whether to keep him in power.

Aid group World Vision, which has projects across the country, appealed to the government Friday to allow delivery of basic humanitarian assistance by reversing the suspension.

“We hold grave concerns for the 1.6 million orphans and vulnerable children across the country who will now not receive critical assistance from humanitarian agencies operating in the country,” Wilfred Mlay, vice president for Africa for World Vision, said in a statement.

World Vision said the suspension was keeping more than 30 local and international groups from delivering food and other aid. It said up to 4 million people were believed in need of aid.

Mugabe, in power since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980, was lauded early in his rule for campaigning for racial reconciliation and building the economy. But in recent years, he has been accused of holding onto power through fraud and intimidation and ruining the economy.

The economic slide of what was once the region’s breadbasket has been blamed on the collapse of the key agriculture sector after often violence seizures of farmland from whites. Mugabe claimed he ordered the seizures, begun in 2002, to benefit poor blacks. But many of the farms went to his loyalists.