HARARE, Zimbabwe — Just three weeks before Zimbabwe's presidential runoff, President Robert Mugabe is giving the opposition little room to campaign — detaining its candidate, banning rallies and attacking diplomats who try to investigate political violence.
Even food is being used as a weapon, American and British officials said, with a ban on aid agencies ensuring that the poorest Zimbabweans must turn to Mugabe for help even if they blame him for the collapse of the economy. The government denied the allegations.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai outpolled Mugabe and two other candidates in the first round of voting March 29, but did not get the simple majority necessary to avoid a runoff. In recent days, it has become increasingly clear that Mugabe does not plan to let Tsvangirai come close to toppling him in the June 27 runoff.
Tsvangirai tried to campaign around Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city, on Friday, but he was stopped at two roadblocks. At the second, he was ordered to go to a police station about 30 miles from Bulawayo.
Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change said police informed the party its rallies were banned out of concern for the safety of Tsvangirai and other party leaders. A party official called the justification "nonsense."
The government-controlled media have focused on Mugabe, all but ignoring Tsvangirai's campaign, raising the question whether Zimbabweans in rural areas even know he has returned to the country. He left after the first round of voting because of fears he may be assassinated.
U.N. aid agencies are concerned
The latest setback for Tsvangirai came as U.N. aid agencies said they were deeply concerned that Zimbabwe has ordered aid groups to halt operations. Millions of Zimbabweans depend on international groups for food, medicine and other aid as the economy crumbles. Without the private agencies, impoverished Zimbabweans will be dependent on the government and Mugabe's party, both of which distribute food and other aid.
U.S. Ambassador James McGee said Zimbabwean authorities were now supplying food mostly to Mugabe supporters. In a videoconference to reporters in Washington from Harare, McGee said the U.S. Embassy has evidence that the government is offering food to opposition members only if they turn in identification that would allow them to vote.
At the United Nations, Zimbabwean Ambassador Boniface Chidyauskiku denied the allegations.
"There is no use of food as a political weapon. It is the other way around. It is the relief agencies, followed by the U.S. government, that have been using food as a political weapon," he said.
"They have gone out into the countryside and they have been telling Zimbabweans that if you don't vote for the opposition, if you don't change your vote, there's no food for you," he said.
Tsvangirai said Mugabe's crackdown would backfire: "If Mugabe did not hear the voice in March, he's going to hear a much louder voice that people no longer enjoy their confidence in this government."