Zimbabwe 'reaching flashpoint'

Zimbabwe's battered but emboldened opposition leader threatened to boycott elections planned for next year unless they are free and fair.

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Concurrently, church leaders launched an outspoken appeal for democracy in the mounting challenge to the autocratic President Robert Mugabe.

As Mr Mugabe prepared to leave for a hastily convened southern African summit to discuss the growing economic, political and social crisis, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said he would boycott presidential elections scheduled for next year unless the balloting is carried out under a new democratic constitution that ensures the voting is free and fair.

"We will never go into an election that is predetermined," Mr Tsvangirai told a memorial service for opposition activist Gift Tandare shot dead by police March 11.

Activist remembered

About 800 mourners, including opposition leaders wearing bandages and other signs of injuries sustained in clashes with police, sang traditional dirges and gospel songs and waved the opposition's symbolic open hand salute at a church in northern Harare.

Gift Tandare, 31, died when police crushed a multi-denominational prayer meeting in the western Harare township of Highfield that authorities said was a banned political protest.

Morgan Tsvangirai and 12 senior opposition colleagues were hospitalised after being injured in the police action and alleged they were assaulted with clubs and iron bars while under arrest without provoking police.

"I don't hate Mugabe. In fact, I think he needs psychiatric help," Mr Tsvangirai told the mourners at the church Tuesday.

He said there was no turning back on a mounting opposition campaign of protests to demand reform and pressure Mr Mugabe to step down.

"We will not betray Gift and the people who have sacrificed themselves for the people of this country," he said.

Clergymen revolt

In their most outspoken comment so far, Zimbabwe's Roman Catholic bishops said the political and economic crisis in the country had reached a flashpoint and only democratic reforms could avert further bloodshed and a mass uprising.

"As the suffering population becomes more insistent, generating more and more pressure through boycotts, strikes, demonstrations and uprisings, the state responds with ever harsher oppression through arrests, detentions, banning orders, beatings and torture," the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference said in an Easter pastoral letter.

The pastoral message, entitled "God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed," was a bold answer to criticism that Catholic leaders have sat on the fence and not done enough to pressure Robert Mugabe, himself a self-avowed Catholic, to halt worsening poverty and stem human rights violations in the country.

"If our young people see their leaders habitually engaging in acts and words which are hateful, disrespectful, racist, corrupt, lawless, unjust, greedy, dishonest and violent in order to cling to the privileges of power and wealth, it is highly likely that many of them will behave in exactly the same manner," the Easter letter from the nine bishops warned.

"The suffering people of Zimbabwe are groaning in agony … More and more people are getting angry," said the Catholic Bishops, including Pius Ncube – one of the government's most outspoken critics.

The crisis of governance and high level corruption has led to the worst economic crisis since independence in 1980, with record inflation of 1,700 per cent, the highest in the world, and acute shortages of food, hard currency, petrol and essential imports.

Health, education and other public services "have all but disintegrated."

"Many people are today going to bed hungry and wake up to a day without work. Hundreds of companies were forced to close. Over 80 per cent of the people of Zimbabwe are without employment," the bishops said.

After the angry and boisterous 2 1/2-hour memorial, Mr Tsvangirai told reporters, "We are mobilising our people. As you can see, everyone is united over the mobilisation and confronting the dictatorship."

Arthur Mutambara, head of an opposition faction that split from the Tsvangirai organisation, described Gift Tandare as "a freedom fighter and national liberation hero," echoing terminology of the liberation war that ended white rule in 1980 and swept Robert Mugabe to power.

In that war, Mugabe did not see combat, he said.

"Mugabe is a spineless coward who did not fire a pistol. We do not recognise him," Mr Mutambara said. "It is freedom or death. If Zimbabweans are not prepared to die, they do not deserve freedom."

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