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US Calls for Immediate Release of Zimbabwe Opposition Leaders

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has reiterated U.S. calls for the release of Zimbabwean opposition leaders arrested and beaten in a protest near Harare Sunday. Rice said the incident shows the "ruthless and repressive" nature of the government of President Robert Mugabe. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The United States is stepping-up its criticism of the Harare government for its violent reaction to Sunday's protest, and it is urging other countries, especially Zimbabwe's African neighbors, to do the same.

Secretary Rice, traveling in Latin America with President Bush, issued a written statement calling for the immediate and unconditional release of opposition leaders and others arrested Sunday, and saying the United States holds President Mugabe responsible for the safety and well-being of those in custody.

Zimbabwean riot police violently crushed an attempt by opposition protesters to hold what they called a prayer meeting in a Harare suburb to protest the Mugabe government's handling of the economy.

Opposition leaders, including Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai, were injured in the melee and were among dozens of activists arrested. One protester was shot dead in the unrest.

Tsvangirai, who challenged Mr. Mugabe for the presidency in 2002, appeared in court Tuesday with obvious head injuries and was sent to a hospital. Police later ordered reporters and other observers out of the courtroom and sealed off the building.

In her statement, Rice said the world community has again been shown that the regime of Robert Mugabe is ruthless and repressive, and creates only suffering for the people of Zimbabwe.

She said the United States will continue to closely follow events there, and urges the Harare government to allow all Zimbabweans to freely express their views without being subject to violence and intimidation.

In a talk with reporters, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said the broader international community needs to "take a very serious look" at the events in Zimbabwe and respond accordingly.

He said it is hard to see how anyone can continue to defend the Mugabe government and said the United States, in particular looks, to Zimbabwe's neighbors to take an unequivocal stand:

"This is an issue that should be on the international community's agenda," Casey said. "And I think the countries of the region need to pay attention to what's happened here over the last few days. I would certainly think it appropriate for them to respond, as we have, by condemning this action and by calling on the Zimbabwean authorities to release everyone that's held. In terms of actions beyond that, obviously that's up to individual countries to decide. But I think Zimbabwe's neighbors should certainly engage on this issue."

Casey said the American Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell, has made several attempts to raise U.S. concerns about the situation directly with senior Zimbabwean officials.

The U.S. envoy was allowed to see Tsvangirai in custody Tuesday and told reporters his condition appeared quite serious.