Under pressure from the Zimbabwean opposition and international groups to deploy a reinforced observer mission to the country well before its June 27 presidential run-off election, the Southern African Development Community has promised to send at least 200 observers - 80 more than it deployed for the March 29 first round.
Officials in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and African and Western diplomatic sources said they have been urging SADC to expand its involvement in the country before the situation spins out of control given the political violence which has become increasingly deadly with more than 50 opposition activists reported slain.
The MDC is asking SADC in particular to put more observers in rural areas that have in effect become no-go areas for the opposition. Militia members and war veterans linked to the ZANU-PF party of President Robert Mugabe have been terrorizing and killing local residents suspected of backing the opposition. Such forces have set up roadblocks in many locations to control entry into such target areas.
Mr. Mugabe faces opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who claimed an official 47.9% of first-round ballots compared with the incumbent's 43.2%, while the combined MDC (the opposition party split in 2005) won a majority in parliament's lower house.
SADC Executive Secretary Tomaz Salamao confirmed in an interview that his group will send at least 200 observers for the late-June presidential run-off.
Salamao said he will meet Saturday with the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission before the first SADC observers arrive. He said the final number of observers and the date of their deployment would be announced after he has met with ZEC officials.
SADC sources earlier had said the organization would not send observers before mid-June, citing logistical and financial constraints.
SADC leaders are expected to examine the crisis in Zimbabwe on the sidelines of a development conference opening in Tokyo this week.
Senior researcher Chris Maroleng of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that SADC might be able to stem the tide of violence if it deploys observers early enough.
International and regional observer groups are urging the Zimbabwean government to uphold its commitments under SADC protocols governing democratic elections and the equivalent African Union declaration free and fair elections.
Senior Program Officer Belinda Musanhu of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa in Pretoria commented that Harare is responsible for ensuring a peaceful environment in the run-up to elections and afterwards. She said she and other regional observers are saddened to note that local observers are now being targeted by violence.
David Pottie, associate director of the democracy program at the Atlanta-based Carter Center, told reporter Carole Gombakomba that the main concern is that violence and intimidation are denying Zimbabweans their universal right to cast a free ballot.
Meanwhile, some 65 civil society leaders met in Harare on Tuesday to set strategies for the presidential run-off campaign. They resolved to launch an international appeal for assistance to victims of political violence and to mobilize funds to help people who have been displaced by such violence return to their homes to vote.
Spokesman Fambai Ngirande of the National Association of Non-Governmental Organizations told reporter Patience Rusere of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the NGO’s are taking such steps to ensure that people are able to exercise their right to vote in what he described as a “crucial” election for the country.