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Mugabe faces growing condemnation after crackdown

HARARE, Zimbabwe &

President Robert Mugabe's authoritarian regime came under growing international condemnation following a violent crackdown on a weekend gathering of opposition activists that has bolstered Zimbabwe's opposition movement.

The main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, suffered a suspected skull fracture, brain injury and internal bleeding in the violence, and results of a brain scan were expected Thursday. Lawyers and other activists said he was savagely beaten in police custody.

Police used tear gas, water cannon and live ammunition to crush Sunday's gathering by the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, a coalition of opposition, church and civic groups, in Harare's western township of Highfield. Police shot and killed one opposition activist, identified as Gift Tandare.

The president of Tanzania, appointed by a coalition of southern African governments to address Zimbabwe's political crisis, flew to Harare to hold talks with President Robert Mugabe over the rising tensions.

In Britain, William Hague of the opposition Conservative Party urged his government and EU states to "rigorously enforce" economic sanctions and travel bans on Zimbabwe.

State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said Wednesday the United States "has in place a number of sanctions against those responsible for repressing democratic efforts in Zimbabwe."

"We will have to take a look at what is currently on the table and what other steps might be taken," he said.

Casey said Barry Lowenkron, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, planned to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe on Thursday with African Union officials in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Zimbabwean Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu blamed Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change for inciting violence, state radio reported Thursday.

"Government has noted with utter dismay the unconditional support for the violent MDC by a number of Western governments," he said

He accused western governments of funding a violent campaign against the government and said the western media sought to "absolve and whitewash the MDC for obvious inescapable blame for the public violence."

The independent weekly newspaper, The Financial Gazette, quoted unidentified sources in Mugabe's politburo, the ruling party's highest policy-making body, saying Wednesday it discussed imposing a state of emergency to curb rising anger.

No official comment has been made. Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena, however, said what he called "an orgy of violence" was spreading across the country, state radio reported.

Police reported late Wednesday that three policewomen were burned by a gasoline bomb attack on a police station in western Harare. Police said they suspected opposition activists were responsible.

In another attack against a police station in the central city of Gweru on Tuesday, raiders used tear gas not of the same type used by security forces, police said.

"The nature of the attack assumes a militia type ... and the response by police will be proportionate to such attacks," police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena told state television.

Ghanaian President John Kufuor, who holds the rotating AU chairmanship, said Wednesday that the organization found the turmoil in Zimbabwe "very embarrassing" and was doing all it could to help.

"I know personally that presidents like (South Africa's Thabo) Mbeki tried desperately to exercise some influence for the better," he told an audience at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

"Please don't think that Africa is not concerned. Africa is very much concerned. What can Mbeki as a man do? Are you proposing that Africa compose an expedition team to march on Zimbabwe and oppose? It does not happen like that. We are in our various ways trying very hard."

Mugabe, 83, has said he favors a plan to extend his term in office by two years, by delaying next year's presidential election until 2010. The move purportedly is to save money by holding the ballot at the same time as parliamentary elections, but it is seen as an effort to delay a showdown between rival factions within the ruling party over the choice of Mugabe's successor.

The violence heightened growing tensions in urban strongholds of the opposition, renewing questions about how long Mugabe &

Zimbabwe's only president since independence in 1980 &

can maintain his tight grip on power.

Mugabe's opponents accuse him of oppression and corruption, and blame him for acute food shortages and the world's highest inflation rate, some 1,600 percent a year.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said earlier this month that deep divisions within Mugabe's party appeared to have "energized" Zimbabweans to take to the streets, and independent human rights groups have reported discontent in the poorly paid security forces.

A dozen opposition activists allegedly beaten by police remained hospitalized while 34 others were released from the clinic early Wednesday, lawyers said. Those freed were told to go to court, but no proceedings were held and the activists returned home.

Tsvangirai, 54, was moved Wednesday to a unit in the clinic where he could be more closely monitored.

He told the British Broadcasting Corp. in an interview from his bed in a Harare clinic that police beat him on the head, knees and back and broke his arm. He said that he "lost a lot of blood" and was given two pints.

"I think the intent was to inflict as much harm as they could," said Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change.

Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu sought to blame opposition activists for Sunday's violence, claiming they attacked police, according to state radio. Authorities suspect an "underground movement" is planning a violent campaign against the government, he said.

Nathan Shamuyarira, chief spokesman for the ruling party, said Tsvangirai defied a police order banning Sunday's meeting. "Tsvangirai really asked for the trouble in which he has found himself," he told South African state television.