Ahead of Voting, Zimbabwe Youth Gangs Beat, Abduct Mugabe Opponents

First, there were reports that groups of war veterans loyal to Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe were attacking, and sometimes killing, political opponents. And the military and police were complicit in the violence by either ignoring attacks or taking part in them.

Now, according to a new warning by the U.S. Embassy in Harare, youth gangs are roaming the suburbs of the capital forcing Zimbabweans to support the president and his ruling Zanu-PF Party in next week's runoff election.

Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is even considering pulling out of the June 27 election, according to reports from the BBC and Reuters.

"This political harassment includes verbal and physical assaults, abductions and forced attendance at Zanu-PF political rallies," the embassy warned in a text message sent to Americans in the tense country.

The embassy blamed the latest wave of intimidation ahead of next Friday's vote, on the Zanu-PF Party.

The embassy sent out the alert to make sure Americans avoided political arguments or large crowds.

"The harassment is random and anyone could become a target," the message said. "Zimbabwe Republic police have been slow to become involved and may not offer protection from these assaults."

Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, came in second in a national election last March but won enough votes to force a runoff against Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change Party.

As next Friday's vote nears, U.S. Ambassador James McGee has vocally complained about Mugabe's blunt campaign to intimidate the country into voting for him.

A chorus of diplomatic and human rights groups charge Zimbabwean police have arrested opposition leaders on charges including treason, prevented the country's media from covering his opponent, and unleashed the veterans of his old revolutionary army on his critics. MDC says more than 70 activists have been killed, and thousands of others have been harassed or beaten.

Critics charge Mugabe has also banned foreign aid groups from distributing food and fuel to the impoverished population, forcing them to seek aid from the government's meager handouts.

But only those who have Zanu-PF identification cards are given food. Others must surrender their national ID cards to receive food. Without a national ID card, they won't be able to vote.

Tsvangirai, who has been repeatedly arrested or delayed at roadblocks as he's tried to campaign, told his supporters Thursday it will take courage to vote for him next Friday.

"The wave of brutality being inflicted upon our people is reminiscent of the worst days of" white rule, Tsvangirai said in an e-mail, one of the few ways he has of reaching voters.

Mugabe's tough tactics have alarmed Western countries.

The United States has called for international monitors to be allowed into the country to oversee the election, but the Zimbabwean government has balked so far. While some monitors will be allowed in just before the election, U.S. officials say they will be too few, too late.

Depending on the outcome of the election, sources told ABC News the United States may impose further sanctions on Zimbabwe's leadership.

European Union nations already have in place an arms embargo against Zimbabwe in addition to a suspension of development aid and an assets freeze and travel ban against Mugabe and 125 other top government officials.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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