HARARE, Zimbabwe - The leader of Zimbabwe's opposition was detained by police for about nine hours yesterday amid ominous signs the government is tightening its grip on the country less than four weeks before a presidential runoff election.
Morgan Tsvangirai, who returned 12 days ago to face President Robert Mugabe in the June 27 ballot, was taken with about 14 others from his Movement for Democratic Change office to a police station in Lupane, north of Bulawayo, his spokesman said.
Spokesman George Sibotshiwe was quoted in a party statement as saying Tsvangirai was released after being charged with a public order offense that he described as "a spurious charge of attracting a large number of people."
Tsvangirai had to sign a police caution before he was let go, and one of his security vehicles was seized, the statement said.
"This is yet another shameless and desperate act of this illegitimate regime to try and subvert the will of the people of Zimbabwe," the Movement for Democratic Change said.
Tsvangirai's detention had been condemned by the United States, Britain, Germany, and the human rights group Amnesty International.
Among those with Tsvangirai were the party's vice president, Thokozane Kupe, and chairman, Lovemore Moyo. They were stopped by police at a roadblock while campaigning in towns north of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city, according to Tsvangirai's spokesman.
Tsvangirai, 56, insists he won the first round of the election outright and says official results released May 2 showing a runoff was needed were fraudulent.
"Mugabe is determined to turn the whole country into a war zone in order to subvert the will of the people and steal the June 27 election by any means possible," Tsvangirai said in Bulawayo earlier yesterday.
The opposition leader left Zimbabwe after the March 29 vote and delayed his return after his party said he was the target of a military assassination plot.
Tsvangirai has survived at least three assassination attempts. In 1997, assailants tried to throw him from a 10th-floor window.
Last year, he was hospitalized after a brutal assault by police at a prayer rally. Images seen around the world of his bruised and swollen face have come to symbolize the plight of dissenters in Zimbabwe.
Independent human rights groups say opposition supporters have been beaten and killed by government and ruling party thugs to ensure that Mugabe, 84, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, wins the second round. He trailed Tsvangirai in the first round.
Mugabe was lauded early in his rule for campaigning for racial reconciliation and building the economy. But in recent years, he has been accused of holding onto power through fraud and intimidation, and trampling on political and human rights.
Zimbabwe's collapsing economy was a major concern of voters during the first round of voting. People are going hungry in what was once the region's breadbasket, with the world's highest inflation rate putting staples out of reach.
Zimbabwe's economic decline has been attributed to the collapse of the key agriculture sector after the seizures - often violent and at Mugabe's orders - of farmland from whites. Mugabe contended the seizures begun in 2002 were to benefit poor blacks, but many of the farms went to his loyalists.
On Tuesday, Mugabe addressed world leaders at a UN summit in Rome on the global food crisis against a backdrop of sharp criticism over his participation, and he defended his policy of seizing lands from whites. Some delegations - including those of the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands - said they wouldn't talk to Mugabe at the summit.
Although police granted permission for Tsvangirai to hold rallies this week, Mugabe's ZANU-PF party ordered the army to camp on the grounds of the venues, the opposition said.
The opposition and human rights groups have criticized the violence and intimidation ahead of the runoff vote, and some Zimbabweans are concerned that Mugabe will try to steal the election.
The opposition said they have received news of the deaths of seven party activists, bringing to 65 the number of supporters killed since March.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack urged the Zimbabwean government "to create an atmosphere where those who have political views different from the government can speak out free from intimidation and violence. Sadly, this has not been the case."
McCormack said the United States will continue to focus a spotlight on Zimbabwe in the hope of spurring change.
"We are deeply concerned about whether or not the proper conditions exist for a free and fair election," he said. "We continue to call on the Zimbabwean government to create these conditions. But, given their history, that call also comes with a healthy dose of skepticism."
Germany called on Harare to conduct a "second round of voting that is transparent and free of incidents," the Foreign Ministry said in Berlin.
The German government called Tsvangirai's arrest "an example of how the government in Harare is trying to weaken the opposition and intimidate voters ahead of the second round of voting."
Amnesty International said Tsvangirai's detention was "part of a sudden, sharp, and dangerous crackdown on political opposition in the run-up to the elections."
The group also raised concerns about "severely tightening restrictions" placed by the government on international aid agencies distributing food and other assistance to Zimbabweans.