President Robert Mugabe accused the Zimbabwe opposition of lying about political violence to justify claims that next week's presidential runoff vote will not be free and fair, the official media reported Saturday.
Mugabe said the Movement for Democratic Change was compiling names of alleged victims and falsely claiming that their supporters were being beaten up. He faces opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the June 27 runoff. Tsvangirai won the first round but not by an outright majority.
"They say this so that they can later say the elections were not free and fair. Which is a damn lie," the state Herald newspaper quoted him as saying at a campaign rally in the western city of Bulawayo.
Independent human rights groups say political violence ahead of the runoff has left 85 people dead and displaced tens of thousands from their homes. The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights said most of the dead fell victim to militants of Mugabe's party, but at least five had affiliations with the ruling ZANU-PF.
There is mounting international condemnation of the violence. The European Union on Friday threatened additional sanctions against Mugabe's government and even African countries like Angola, traditionally sympathetic toward Mugabe, voiced concern.
In Bulawayo, Mugabe repeated his campaign theme that voting for Tsvangirai and his pro-Western party was "tantamount to going back to colonialism," The Herald reported the 84-year-old autocrat saying. A seven-year bush war swept Mugabe to power at independence from Britain in 1980.
Zimbabwe's powerful police chief Augustine Chihuri put the blame for the violence firmly on the Movement for Democratic Change.
"It is without doubt that between the two political parties .... MDC-T (Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change) is the main culprit in the political violence that we are currently witnessing," The Herald quoted him as saying.
He said police have arrested 156 ZANU-PF and 390 opposition supporters. He said the police force was on high alert ahead of the runoff and had already started intensifying deployments throughout the country.
"Violence will not be treated with kid gloves," The Herald quoted him as saying.
One of the dead was a school headmaster in the Mutoko district northeast of Harare, whose eye was removed and whose genitals were severed. The fire-charred body of another, the wife of an opposition local council official southwest of the capital, was found with both feet and a hand removed, the doctors said.
Gangs with sticks, clubs
Witnesses said gangs of militants wearing bandannas and scarves of Mugabe's party and carrying sticks and clubs continued to roam the township of Chitungwiza, south of Harare, and other Harare townships Saturday after manning makeshift roadblocks overnight.
Residents were advised to stay indoors and avoid traveling by road at night, witnesses said. Militants also set up camps in suburban grassland and frog-marched residents to political meetings, they said.
Tsvangirai said Friday that a "wave of brutality" has swept Zimbabwe since the runoff was called and implored Zimbabweans not to lose hope that they can change their country. His message was distributed by e-mail, one of the few ways he has of reaching voters.
Tsvangirai's attempts to tour the country have been stymied by police at road blocks, and the state-controlled media all but ignore him.
The opposition says a treason case against its secretary-general, Tendai Biti, is also part of a government plot to undermine it before the election. Magistrate Mishrod Guvamombe ruled Friday that there were grounds to believe Biti had committed an offense and ordered him held until another hearing set for July 7 while police continue their investigations.
Biti was formally charged Thursday with treason, which can carry the death penalty, among other offenses.