The Southern African Development Community, known as SADC, is sending a task force to Zimbabwe to investigate increasing violence against the political opposition and human rights workers. The decision was made during a routine SADC foreign ministers meeting in Harare late Thursday.
The task force is due in Zimbabwe next week, following the decision at a late session of the foreign ministers' meeting. On Friday, Zimbabwe's foreign minister Stan Mudenge said he had invited SADC to send the task force.
On Thursday, SADC spokesman, Mozambique's Foreign Minister Leonardo Simao, said he and his colleagues were disturbed by the political tension and violence in Zimbabwe.
Several African diplomats at the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed concern, and in some instances horror, at accounts of violence and harassment endured by the Zimbabwe opposition and civil rights workers.
Until now, SADC has been broadly supportive of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, saying his land reform program was a constructive development.
But, African leaders now say privately, and occasionally in public, that the seizure of most white-owned commercial farms has been a failure. In addition, last week South African President Thabo Mbeki questioned the human rights situation in Zimbabwe.
Regional leaders say they are responding to well-documented reports of gross violations of human rights.
There is guarded optimism in Zimbabwe's opposition circles that the arrival of the task force may restrain government supporters from continuing some of the worst attacks, including beatings, torture and rape.
It has been a grim week for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
Two district chairmen from Harare suburbs were attacked Wednesday night and are now hospitalized.
At the same time, Amos Makasa, an employee of an opposition member of parliament, is in critical condition in a hospital in eastern Zimbabwe, after allegedly being attacked by government security agents.
And the deputy leader of Zimbabwe's opposition, Gibson Sibanda, remains in prison after being arrested for his role in organizing a general strike two weeks ago.
Police did not respond Friday to questions about the growing political violence.