Political tensions are rising on the semi-autonomous islands of Zanzibar ahead of next year's elections. Incidents of politically motivated violence are multiplying and opposition supporters are the clear target.

The Palm Beach Inn on the east coast of Zanzibar's main island is the stuff of picture postcards: azure waters lapping on a snow white beach framed by lush green coconut palm trees.

Until a few weeks ago, tourists from Europe and North America came to this idyllic hotel. But since a horde of people wielding spears and guns threw a firebomb at the hotel a month ago, its rooms have been empty.

For five years, Palm Beach Inn managing director Naila Jiddawi, was a member of parliament from the opposition party Civic United Front. She even contemplated running as an opposition candidate in the 2000 presidential election, but will not be running for any office this time around.

She says she was shocked by the firebombing of her hotel, which she says was carried out by a crowd led by local officials of the ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi.

?Exactly two days later [after the attack], I saw in the newspaper saying Naila Jiddawi wants to run as a presidential candidate,? she said. ?It is not true - I do not belong to any political party. But it is just their fear of thinking that maybe some of us are going to run against them and they know that they are standing on very slippery ground.?

About an hour's drive from Palm Beach Hotel, in an old, dark shop hidden in a narrow alley of Stone Town, an elderly couple holds up a white T-shirt, stained with a boot print and patches of dried blood.

The shirt belongs to their son, Farid Hadi Ahmed, the leader of Zanzibar's Council of Imams.

Mr. Ahmed tells VOA that after his March 17 arrest, police accused him of firebombing a car and held him for 24 days before releasing him without charge.

He says, while in custody, he was beaten up and and interrogated repeatedly.

Mr. Ahmed says people need to know the truth; whoever speaks the truth, he says, is arrested and taken to court.

His experience and Ms. Jiddawi's are shared by many Zanzibaris, who say they feel they are being punished for their political views.

Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania formed a union in 1964, under which the Zanzibari government has jurisdiction over education, social programs, and cultural issues, while the central government is responsible for defense, immigration, and foreign affairs. Both territories are ruled by the Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, known as the CCM.

The islands' main opposition party is called CUF, short for the Civic United Front.

The CCM has been ruling Zanzibar since 1964. The islands held their first multi-party elections in 1995, which CCM won amid allegations of election fraud.

The party also won the last elections in December 2000, which were followed by a wave of violence. At least 35 people were killed and some 600 injured when the Tanzanian army and police opened fire on a crowd of CUF supporters protesting the results of the ballot.

According to Human Rights Watch, in the days that followed, Tanzanian security forces, backed by ruling party officials and militias, went house-to-house, arresting, beating, and sexually abusing the residents. About 2,000 Zanzibaris fled to nearby Kenya and returned only after CCM and CUF signed a power-sharing accord near the end of 2001.

The managing editor of the now-defunct Zanzibar weekly newspaper Dira, Ali Mohammed Nabwa, is one of many critics who say the ruling party pays only lip service to democracy and freedom of speech.

The Zanzibari government closed Dira last year after only several months of publishing and stripped Mr. Nabwa of his Tanzanian citizenship. Dira was the islands' first and only independent newspaper in 40 years.

Mr. Nabwa says the government shut down his newspaper because it carried articles critical of the government. He says CCM wants to stifle criticism and create turmoil before the upcoming election.

?The ruling party is very worried about the 2005 elections, because everybody knows that CCM lost in 1995 and again in 2000, but they gained victory by force. Now, this time, the government has begun some sort of maneuvers,? Mr. Nabwa said. ?First of all, they will try to disrupt the electoral process; if that fails, then to go into violence so that they can justify prolonging or postponing the elections.?

Mr. Nabwa says a series of mysterious bomb and arson attacks against government, religious, and private properties have already been carried out.

CUF leaders and supporters blame the ruling party for the bomb and arson attacks, but the government's spokesman, Enzi Talib, says the violence is the work of jobless youth recruited by CUF and local Islamists to cause unrest.

The senior assistant commissioner of police, Juma Abdalla, says a Muslim cultural and religious organization called the Society for Islamic Awareness is also supporting CUF and whipping up anti-government sentiments mainly because the organization opposes the authority of the Mufti, a supreme Muslim leader appointed by the Zanzibar government.

The Mufti is supposed to have the final say on all matters relating to Islam in Zanzibar. All Muslims wishing to have a meeting must get permission from the Mufti first. About 90 percent of Zanzibar's one million people are Muslim.

Mr. Abdalla says the Islamic Awareness society and the opposition party are determined to topple the government.

?They have vividly said that this government has not been instituted legally - we have to crush them,? Mr. Abdalla said.

He said the firebombing last month of Palm Beach Inn was carried out by a band of sorcerers from mainland Tanzania wanting to rid the place of evil spirits, not by the ruling party.

He also denied allegations of torture of prisoners, and said detainees are not held for more than 24 hours without appearing before the court to face specific charges.

The director of state-run radio, Omar Yussuf Chunda, says his station abides by the regulations of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission, which says all parties are entitled to equal coverage.?

?All parties, they have [been] given the same [coverage]. For example, if ZEC said all parties should have a program of one hour, so all parties, we are going to provide them here one hour,? Mr. Chunda said.

But the Palm Beach Inn's Ms. Jiddawi and Dira newspaper's Mr. Nabwa have no faith in such statements. They tell VOA the ruling party will stop at nothing to win next year's election, which they say, could bring new violence to Zanzibar.