JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - In the days after a crippling strike by opponents of President Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the government there has struck back with a wave of violence and intimidation that has brought condemnation from governments and human rights groups around the world.
Observers and diplomats say that with the world's attention focused on war in Iraq, Mugabe has unleashed Zimbabwe's armed forces and militia against his people even as the country prepares for two important parliamentary elections Sunday.
Internet reports from Harare describe hospital wards full of people suffering from severe burns and broken fingers and toes. Photographs show men and women with swollen lash marks across their backs and chests. Opposition leaders report that more than 1,000 people have fled their homes and that more than 500 people have been arrested.
The police confirmed that they had arrested hundreds, saying those detained had incited violence. Some of them, the police said, burned buses and cars. The police officials denied accusations of brutality.
Human rights groups, however, say most of those arrested are leaders and supporters of Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. The prisoners, human rights officials say, are often beaten and detained in their homes.
The deepening tensions followed a two-day strike by the opposition that halted most business and industry in Zimbabwe. The action was considered the largest public protest against Mugabe, 79, since he was re-elected last year in a contest that was marred by charges of fraud and intimidation.
Political analysts and opposition leaders issued forecasts for more political storms. In a speech March 21, Mugabe boasted that he could be a "black Hitler tenfold."
The State Department has called on the Zimbabwean government to "cease its campaign of violent repression" and bring to justice the perpetrators of "serious and widespread human rights abuses."
Amnesty International, in a report March 21, issued a warning: "The alarming escalation in political violence is a clear indication that the Zimbabwe authorities are determined to suppress dissent by any means necessary, regardless of the terrible consequences. We look upon the next 10 days with fear."
On Sunday, voters in two important townships controlled by the opposition are supposed to go to the polls to elect representatives to the Zimbabwean parliament.
In a news conference in Harare yesterday, opposition leaders showed copies of the government's voter rolls to reporters and said dozens of people on the lists did not exist. Government officials dismissed those charges.
Monday will mark the deadline set by the opposition for Mugabe to accept and begin addressing a list of 15 demands, including disbanding government militias, restoring media freedom and releasing all political prisoners.
Mugabe, who has governed Zimbabwe since the end of white minority rule more than 20 years ago, played down the effects of the strike and dismissed his opponents' demands, saying he would not obey "pathetic puppets" of the West.
He also ordered security forces to crack down on those using violence against the government, accusing the opposition of employing mob aggression under the guise of defending human rights.
The opposition, emboldened by the success of its two-day strike, has promised "mass action" against Mugabe. Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, said the violence by soldiers and militia had deepened the country's "crisis of governance."
"No amount of brutality and arrests will discourage people from engaging in an agenda they have determined whose time has come," said Tsvangirai, who is on trial on charges of treason. "The more the repression, the more it will rebound."