In another sign of the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe, the U.S. State Department is recommending out all fellows and scholars from its Fulbright program leave the country immediately, citing security concerns before the election runoff later this month, State Department officials told ABC News.
There are currently five Americans participating in the program in Zimbabwe, ranging from teaching fellows to research students, one of whom says he is "disappointed" at the prospect of having to leave before his scholarship ends. State Department officials also said that the program has suspended the two scholarships it had planned for next year as well.
The decision comes after months of escalating violence following the country's presidential election in March, which President Robert Mugabe is believed to have lost but has refused to concede, instead forcing a runoff.
Last week diplomats from the United States and the United Kingdom were attacked and detained while investigating allegations of human rights abuses in the rural opposition strongholds, in an episode that James McGee, the U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe, has called a "serious diplomatic incident."
The New York-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch issued a report today alleging that a systematic government campaign of murder and brutality is gripping the nation, leaving the June 27 runoff elections "dead upon arrival."
Entitled "Bullets for Each of You," the report describes incidents of torture and systematic killings. According to Human Rights Watch at least 36 people have been killed and thousands more subjected to violence deliberately organized and orchestrated by military officials and operatives of Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.
The report also repeats allegations made last week by McGee that the Zimbabwean government is using food aid as a weapon against citizens who voted for the opposition.
"President Mugabe and his government of Zimbabwe bear full responsibility for these serious crimes," Georgette Gagnon, the Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released today.
"They have shown gross indifference to the plight of the people, allowing senior-ranking security officers, 'war veterans,' youth militia and ZANU-PF free rein to commit horrifying abuses," Gagnon said.
British newspapers have reported that the military has taken over from Mugabe and is running a "junta-style" government, something one political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe says doesn't surprise him.
"The leaders of this 'junta' seek some legitimacy through elections and some say, have convinced Mugabe to go for the run-off despite earlier speculation that he was going to call it quits," said the professor, who asked for anonymity because he fears for his safety. "I've been told that after the elections, they will 'just make it official.'"
Human Rights Watch is calling for the African Union and the Southern Africa Development Community to exert pressure on Zimbabwe to hold free and fair elections.
"AU and SADC leaders should not turn a blind eye to the serious abuses taking place in Zimbabwe," Gagnon said. "They should make it clear to Zimbabwe that they won't endorse the elections and the result unless the government takes immediate measures to end the violence and other abuses."