Zimbabwe's Tsvangirai demands activists' release

JOHANNESBURG Thu Jan 15, 2009 9:58am GMT

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai Thursday demanded the unconditional release of detained party activists before a power-sharing deal with President Robert Mugabe can be implemented.

Tsvangirai told a news conference in neighbouring South Africa that he remained committed to the power-sharing agreement signed by Zimbabwe's rival political parties in September but said he lacked a credible partner.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader said there has been several breaches of the agreement by Mugabe's government, including the abduction and detention of opposition activists.

"These must stop immediately and those abducted and illegally detained must be released unconditionally if this agreement is to be consummated," Tsvangirai said.

The power-sharing agreement is still seen as the best chance of preventing total economic collapse in once prosperous Zimbabwe. It now suffers hyper-inflation and food shortages while a cholera epidemic has killed over 2,000 people.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said at least 43 opposition MDC members have been unlawfully detained since October.

"Zimbabwe authorities are putting lives at risk by secretly detaining MDC members and rights activists. Those unlawfully held should be freed immediately," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Among those arrested is human rights campaigner Jestina Mukoko, accused with the others of plotting to topple Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980.

Zimbabwe's chief justice Wednesday ordered urgent medical care for Mukoko and other activists who say they were tortured while in police custody. Zimbabwe's government denies torturing activists.

Tsvangirai said he would this week meet Mugabe and South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, the current chairman of regional grouping SADC, to discuss the power-sharing deal.

While Botswana and Zambia have been highly critical of Mugabe, other SADC states have failed to force implementation of power-sharing despite repeated calls for help from Tsvangirai.

"I still believe that a political agreement offers the best means of preventing Zimbabwe from becoming a failed state. I am committed to forming a new inclusive government in Zimbabwe and all I lack is a willing partner," Tsvangirai said.

Tsvangirai said he will return to Zimbabwe Saturday for the first time since November last year.

(Writing by Marius Bosch; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

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