HARARE, Zimbabwe – The opposition said Friday that its rallies had been banned indefinitely three weeks before the presidential runoff, while the U.S. ambassador accused President Robert Mugabe’s regime of using food as a weapon to stay in power.
U.S. Ambassador James McGee said the regime is distributing food mostly to its supporters and that those backing the opposition are offered food only if they hand in identification that would allow them to vote.
If the situation continues, “massive, massive starvation” will result, McGee told reporters in Washington by video conference from Harare.
Millions of Zimbabweans depend on international groups for food and other aid as the country’s economy crumbles. The world’s highest inflation rate has put staples out of reach in what was once the region’s breadbasket.
Aid groups in Zimbabwe were ordered Thursday to halt their operations, leaving impoverished Zimbabweans dependent on the government and Mugabe’s party.
On Friday, Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change said police had banned the opposition party’s rallies out of concern for the safety of Tsvangirai and other party leaders. The open-ended ban only affects the opposition.
Tsvangirai spokesman George Sibotshiwe called the justification “nonsense,” and said the ban was “a clear indication that the regime will do everything necessary to remain in power.”
Tsvangirai beat Mugabe in the March 29 first round, but did not garner the 50 percent plus one vote necessary to avoid a runoff, which is scheduled for June 27.
Opposition and human rights groups accuse Mugabe of orchestrating violence to ensure he wins re-election amid growing unpopularity for his heavy-handed rule and the country’s economic collapse.
Tsvangirai had been trying to campaign Friday around Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. He was stopped at two roadblocks, and the second time was ordered to a police station about 30 miles from Bulawayo.
Tsvangirai was questioned by police for 25 minutes at the station, and was told that party rallies in the country had been banned indefinitely, Sibotshiwe said. Tsvangirai and reporters with him were allowed to leave about two hours later.
On Wednesday, Tsvangirai said he was detained for nine hours at another police station near Bulawayo.