Violence and intimidation against members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) increased sharply within days of the party "disengaging" from Zimbabwe's unity government, MDC spokesman Luke Tamborinyoka told IRIN.
In one incident three armed men accosted MDC security official Edith Mashaire, 32, and tried to force her into a waiting vehicle as she walked towards her office in the capital, Harare, during working hours.
"Two other men, one brandishing an AK-47 rifle and another holding a pistol, approached me and threatened to shoot me. They started assaulting me with their weapons while telling me to get into the truck," Mashaire told IRIN. She screamed to other pedestrians that she was an MDC official and frightened the men off.
"We have received reports of our supporters being beaten up and having their homes set on fire, allegedly by ZANU-PF supporters led by war veterans and members of the army," Tamborinyoka said. President Robert Mugabe is the leader of ZANU-PF, the other wing of the unity government formed in February 2009.
Morgan Tsvangirai, MDC leader and Prime Minister, "disengaged" from the unity government on 16 October in protest over the re-arrest of the party's treasurer and deputy agricultural minister designate, Roy Bennett, which had "brought home the fiction of the credibility and integrity of the transitional government".
Violence has erupted in Mashonaland Central Province, once a ZANU-PF stronghold in the north of the country. "The violence has intensified in rural areas ... Also affected are close to 100 teachers who have fled from the province," Tamborinyoka said.
"Some of the biggest victims in this ongoing cycle of violence are children, because they have nobody to teach them," he told IRIN. ZANU-PF supporters have accused the teaching profession of being allied to the MDC, and teachers have been told that since their party, the MDC, had pulled out of the government, they were now considered enemies of ZANU-PF.
violence is spreading to many parts of the country like Mashonaland
West and East [provinces], Manicaland [province in the east] and
Masvingo [province in the south] - all former ZANU-PF strongholds - and
even in central Harare
"The violence is spreading to many parts of the country like Mashonaland West and East [provinces], Manicaland [province in the east] and Masvingo [province in the south] - all former ZANU-PF strongholds - and even in central Harare. We believe that ZANU-PF is retaliating after our party disengaged from the government two weeks ago," Tamborinyoka said.
At the weekend, heavily armed police and soldiers raided a house used by MDC officials and accused the group of stealing weapons from army barracks in Harare. Tamborinyoka said recent events showed all the hallmarks of a crackdown on the MDC and its supporters. "Recently, a brigadier-general pointed a gun at one of our members of parliament and threatened to shoot him."
ZANU-PF youth militia deployed in rural areas
A special audit report on ministerial accounts has also revealed that the youth development ministry employed 10,277 ZANU-PF youth militia since May 2008, who were subsequently deployed to rural areas.
The period of recruitment, which began after ZANU-PF lost its majority in parliament for the first time since independence from Britain in 1980, coincided with escalating violence against MDC supporters, including incidents of murder, rape, torture and displacement, during the second round of the presidential ballot in 2008.
Tsvangirai got the majority of votes in the first round of the presidential poll but narrowly missed securing the 50-plus-one votes required for an outright win. He withdrew from the run-off presidential vote in protest against alleged state-sponsored violence. Mugabe thus won unopposed, but international observers dismissed the poll as invalid.
"The appointees [youth militia] were not subjected to a medical examination, as required by the public service regulations, declarations of official secrets were not completed, and there were no staff files opened at either the ministry headquarters or provincial centres," Tamborinyoka said.
Raymond Majongwe, secretary-general of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, said ZANU-PF youth militia, working as "youth or ward officers", were harassing teachers in schools.
"Sometimes they talk about the need to 'teach children the correct history of the country', and are going as far as appointing school prefects," Majongwe told IRIN.
In the past two months "war collaborators" - people who assisted guerrilla fighters during the war of independence in the 1970s and remain staunch ZANU-PF supporters - have been holding meetings across the country, raising fears of an increase in violence. Zimbabwe's defence minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa, recently addressed one of the meetings.