(Adds U.S., British comments, paragraphs 5-8) By Cris Chinaka
HARARE, March 15 (Reuters) - President Robert Mugabe on Thursday told Western countries to "go hang" after a barrage of international criticism over charges his government assaulted Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader while in police detention.
Opposition officials say police tortured Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai and several other opposition and civic group leaders on Sunday when they tried to attend a prayer vigil in a Harare township.
But the government has suggested Tsvangirai and his group resisted arrest and on Thursday upped the ante, accusing opposition supporters of waging a militia-style campaign of violence to topple Mugabe from power.
"It’s the West as usual ... when they criticise the government trying to prevent violence and punish the perpetrators of that violence, we take the position that they can go hang," Mugabe said after a meeting with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete.
The United States dismissed Mugabe’s comments as an attempt to paint himself as a victim, and Britain said it was trying to press the United Nations and European Union for tough reprisals against Harare for its crackdown on the opposition.
"While Mr. Mugabe may want to paint this as an issue of his defying the rest of the world trying to dictate to him what should be happening in Zimbabwe, it is really a case that the international system is expressing real concern about the tragedy unfolding there," U.S. State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said.
In London, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told reporters Britain wanted direct action against those responsible for the detention and beating Tsvangirai and others.
"We are pushing for ... the human rights council at the United Nations to take an urgent look at Zimbabwe," she said.
The 83-year-old Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980 and who frequently brands the MDC a puppet party sponsored by the West, was defiant alongside Kikwete.
"Here are groups of persons who went out of their way to effect a campaign of violence and we hear no criticism at all of those actions of violence, none at all," Mugabe said when asked to respond to criticism of his government’s conduct.
Police said three officers were badly hurt late on Tuesday when suspected opposition supporters petrol bombed a police station in a Harare suburb, leaving their house in flames adding that the MDC’s "orgy of violence was spreading" in the country.
"We believe that the attacks are assuming a militia-type of form," police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said as state television showed the badly burnt officers in hospital.
MDC DENIES ACCUSATIONS
The MDC denied the charges and said they were part of an effort by Mugabe to deflect growing outrage that followed the crackdown on the anti-government rally on Sunday.
MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said 12 officials were arrested on Thursday in Zimbabwe’s second largest city Bulawayo for trying to hold a march against the assault of the opposition.
Police were not immediately available for a comment.
MDC officials said Tsvangirai, who has received glowing international praise since being filmed on Tuesday walking into a hospital battered and bruised, suffered a suspected fractured skull as a result of police brutality.
Tsvangirai’s spokesman William Bango told Reuters the MDC leader might be discharged from hospital on Friday, but said his doctors had not released details of his condition.
"I think for them, it’s a medical ethics issue ... but Mr Tsvangirai may be discharged tomorrow but continue to receive treatment from home," he said.
Earlier on Thursday, Chamisa said after being released from a hospital where he was treated that claims that opposition supporters had launched a violent campaign against Mugabe’s 27-year rule were meant to justify the "madness and brutality" of the government and soil the reputation of its opponents. The United States is among those that have sharply condemned the arrests, threatening to tighten sanctions on Mugabe and other top officials. United Nations and European Union officials warned against sanctions that hurt citizens more than leaders.
Tanzania is one of a "troika" of countries in the Southern African Development Community charged with seeking to resolve Zimbabwe’s long-running political and economic crisis. Kikwete said he had briefed Mugabe, but declined to give details.
Mugabe has suggested he may seek to stay on as president beyond the scheduled end of his current term in 2008.