The U.S. Department of State has issued an advisory urging Americans who live, work or are traveling in Zimbabwe to "maintain a high level of vigilance" in the approach to elections in March, citing the potential for "widespread instability and violence."

The State Department advisory noted that "Previous elections in 2000, 2002 and 2005 were contentious and sparked food, water and fuel shortages, as well as occasional outbreaks of violence. Given the present, significantly weaker, Zimbabwean economy, chronic hyperinflation, and ongoing shortages, the 2008 election season has the potential to generate widespread instability and violence."

It advised U.S. citizens to avoid "high-density areas," referring to populous townships on the southern fringe of Harare in particular, as well as industrial zones.

"Be aware of your surroundings and avoid potentially threatening events such as demonstrations, rallies, or other public gatherings," it said. "Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and...escalate into violence."

Political analyst Pedzisayi Ruhanya, a program manager with the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, told reporter Ntungamili Nkomo of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the U.S. State Department travel alert was warranted, as violence by youth militias maintained by the ruling ZANU-PF party is already on the rise.

On Tuesday a group of senior officials and members of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, which has been on strike nationwide since early January, was attacked in central Harare by alleged ZANU-PF militants, taken to the provincial headquarters of the ruling party, beaten and handed over to police.

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