In an escalation of political violence in Zimbabwe, bands of newly trained youth militia are said to have been deployed by the government to terrorize opposition supporters.
Gangs of teenage youths in army-style uniforms are said to be rampaging through provincial towns and the outlying suburbs of Harare, beating up suspected opposition supporters, looting shops and destroying houses.
A national service scheme for school-leavers was begun in Zimbabwe last year at a government-sponsored youth training camp. The government said the aim of the youth militia was to teach what it called traditional values and customs.
The government has made no direct comment on allegations about the militia but has accused the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Changes, of causing violence throughout the country in the run-up to presidential elections scheduled for March.
Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the MDC, has accused the youth militia of killing party supporters. "Zimbabwe is teetering dangerously on the brink of a low-intensity civil war owing to the activities of the government-sponsored militia," he said.
Learnmore Jongwe, the head of the information section of the MDC, says that five party supporters have been killed by ruling party mobs in the past two weeks.
Meanwhile, independent newspaper reports in Zimbabwe say that United Nation aid agencies trying to distribute emergency food to remote areas are complaining of harassment by the secret police.
The newspapers quote Victor Angelo, head of the U.N. Development Program in Zimbabwe, as saying it would be "a sad development" if aid workers were being intimidated.
The U.N. has agreed to organize food aid on condition that the government is not involved in its distribution or tries to use food aid to win support for President Robert Mugabe in the forthcoming elections.