HARARE (AFP) — Zimbabwe's opposition accused President Robert Mugabe's regime on Friday of stepping up a crackdown by arresting its leader's lawyer ahead of a key summit on the country's post-election crisis.
Innocent Chagonda was arrested on Thursday for simply demanding the release of a helicopter hired by Morgan Tsvangirai for his presidential campaign, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and another lawyer said.
The helicopter had been confiscated by police and the pilot, a South African national, was detained on March 25 for alleged fraud and immigration transgressions. He spent nine days behind bars before being freed.
"As a party we feel this is a sustained effort on the part of the authorities against people who assist the MDC," spokesman Nelson Chamisa said.
"This is an onslaught which is not only happening in the rural areas, but even in the civil service as people who are perceived MDC supporters are being intimidated."
Zimbabwe is still awaiting the result of the presidential election on March 29. Tsvangirai claims outright victory, but Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) says there must be a run-off.
The opposition on Thursday ruled out Tsvangirai's participation in any second-round vote, accusing Mugabe and his regime of having launched a campaign of intimidation that would effect the true democratic result.
"The military leaders in the establishment are trying to subvert the will of the people," Tsvangirai said in an interview earlier in the week.
"This is, in a sense, a de facto military coup. They have rolled out military forces across the whole country, to prepare for a run-off and try to cow the population. It's an attempt to try to create conditions for Mugabe to win."
But the aftermath of the election has so far been largely peaceful and despite reports of the invasion of several white-owned farms, no unusually heavy military presence has been witnessed in the capital Harare.
Zimbabwe Information Minister Bright Matonga on Friday shot down the opposition claims.
"There was no violence before the election, during the election or after the election so we can't talk about even a military junta or anything," he told SABC radio in South Africa.
Meanwhile, Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai prepared to lock horns at a weekend summit of southern African leaders aimed at sorting out Zimbabwe's election mess.
Regional leaders were converging on the Zambian capital Lusaka for Saturday's extraordinary summit of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community to consider the crisis.
Tsvangirai met Thursday in Pretoria with President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, officials said. Mbeki, the regional heayweight, has come under fire for failing to condemn the long delay in announcing the presidential poll result.
"The meeting went well. The details of it are not at this stage for public consumption," MDC spokesman Nqobizitha Mlilo told AFP, giving the first news of the meeting on Friday.
Southern African leaders have been heavily criticised over their traditional reluctance to criticise Mugabe, who has presided over his country's economic demise during his 28-year rule, which began with independence in April 1980.
Mugabe has often bridled at any kind of outside intervention, blaming the country's economic woes on a limited package of Western sanctions imposed after he allegedly rigged his 2002 re-election.
The former British colony now has a six-figure inflation rate and unemployment is beyond 80 percent, while average life expectancy stands at 37 years.
A legal bid by the opposition to force Zimbabwe's electoral commission to declare the result is still under consideration by a judge and no decision on the matter is expected until Monday, at the earliest.
ZANU-PF has accused the commission of massive counting anomalies and arrested 15 election officials for suspected fraud.
Three were sentenced Thursday to one week in prison or a fine of eight million Zimbabwe dollars (266 US dollars, or 23 cents on the more realistic parallel market) after failing to report a missing ballot box, the state-run Herald reported.
The ruling party is contesting enough seats in the simultaneous parliamentary elections to overturn a slim opposition majority and has also demanded a total recount of the presidential vote.
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