By Stella Mapenzauswa
HARARE (Reuters) - A wave of political violence in Zimbabwe, underscored by an attack on people leaving an opposition rally, is expected to intensify in the final two weeks of a bitter presidential election campaign.
Hundreds of followers of President Robert Mugabe ambushed the opposition supporters after the gathering in his hometown of Chinhoyi on Sunday, where opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai vowed to end a "reign of terror" if he took power.
The incident capped a week in which police shot at Tsvangirai's campaign convoy, militants attacked an opposition office, and self-style liberation war veterans forced a white farmer and his family to flee their farm.
Tsvangirai poses the strongest challenge to Mugabe's bid to extend his 22 years in power in the March 9-10 election.
"The violence is likely to continue right up until the day before elections," said Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, a coalition of civic groups.
On Sunday, Tsvangirai had already left the stadium in Chinhoyi when more than 500 supporters of Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party swarmed around the exit.
They attacked sympathizers of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) with sticks and stones as they headed home, a Reuters correspondent said from the scene.
He saw no serious injuries but the attack took place in full view of foreign observers who are in the southern African country to try to ensure that the election is free and fair.
OBSERVERS' CAR HIT
The leader of the southern African observer mission, which includes members from Zimbabwe's neighbors, said a car carrying some of his team was hit but no one was injured.
Duke Lefhoko said they would report the incident to police, but critics are demanding a tougher response from observers.
"The only way the violence could go down was if the observers, especially the South Africans, issued a strong critical statement," Madhuku told Reuters.
A car used by a member of the Commonwealth monitor team was also targeted after the rally, said mission chief General Abdulsalami Abubakar, a former Nigerian president.
Last week, two South Africans were trapped in an MDC office by 200 pro-government militants armed with stones and iron bars in the first incident involving election observers.
They were not hurt, but the MDC said five of its supporters were injured in the same attack and that more than 100 have been killed since February 2000.
Tsvangirai accuses Mugabe of intimidation and planning to rig the vote, criticisms echoed by the United States and European Union (news - web sites), which have imposed personal sanctions on Mugabe and his inner circle.
The EU pulled out its election monitors last week, saying they were not being allowed to work freely. A mission from the Commonwealth, which groups mainly Britain and its former colonies, began its monitoring program in earnest on Sunday.
Commonwealth mission chief Abubakar said he would be sending 20 teams of two observers throughout the country from next week.
"Our concern will be purely with the electoral environment and the process rather than the outcome," he told reporters.
A visibly angry Tsvangirai said on Sunday ZANU-PF was acting like "wild animals" and Mugabe "wants to be the only choice and he wants to achieve that...through his reign of terror.
"We are going to inherit a country in a mess, a country that has been raped by political violence."
Chinhoyi, 70 miles northwest of Harare, was hit by fighting last August when Mugabe's supporters forcibly seized white-owned farms as part of the president's controversial land reform program.
In a rally on Saturday, the 78-year-old Mugabe defended his land reform program and accused Britain of backtracking on a promise to help redistribute land in its former colony, where he says the white minority still owns the greater part of the land.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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