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Assassins target opposition party

Tonderai Ndira was a shrewd choice for assassination: young, courageous and admired. Kill him and fear would pulse through a thousand spines. He was an up-and-comer in Zimbabwe's opposition party, a charismatic figure with a strong following in the Harare slums where he lived.

There were rumors his name was on a hit list. For weeks, he prudently hid out, but his wife, Plaxedess, desperately pleaded with him to come home for a night. He slipped back to his family on May 12.

The five killers pushed through the door soon after dawn, as Ndira, 30, slept. He was wrenched from his bed, roughed up and stuffed into a pickup. As his children watched from the door, two men sat on his back, a gag was shoved in his mouth and his head was yanked upward, a technique of asphyxiation later presumed in a physician's post-mortem to be the cause of death.

Zimbabwe will have a presidential runoff election on Friday, an epochal choice between Robert Mugabe, the 84-year-old liberation hero who has run the nation for nearly three decades, and the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

But in recent weeks, the balloting has been preceded by a calculated campaign of bloodletting meant to intimidate the opposition and strip it of some of its foot soldiers.

Even as hundreds of election observers from neighboring countries were deployed across Zimbabwe in the past few days, the gruesome killings and beatings of opposition figures have continued.

The body of the wife of Harare's newly chosen mayor was found Wednesday, her face so badly bashed in that even her own brother only recognized her by her brown skirt and plaited hair. On Thursday, the bodies of four more opposition activists turned up after they had been abducted by men shouting ruling party slogans.

The strategic killing of activists and their families has deprived the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, not only of its dead stalwarts but hundreds of other essential workers who have fled while reasonably supposing they will be next.

At least 85 activists and supporters of the party have been killed, according to civic group tallies, including several operatives who, while little known outside Zimbabwe, were mainstays within it.

But the violence has been aimed not only at campaigners but voters as well. So-called pungwe sessions, the Shona word for all-night vigils, have become common in areas where people once loyal to Mugabe dared vote against him in the first round of voting on March 29. Villagers are rousted from their homes and herded together. Suspected opposition supporters are then called forward to be thrashed.

Mugabe openly portrays the election in the terminology of warfare, a battle to preserve sovereignty against puppets put up by the British, the nation's one-time colonial masters who in his view want to reclaim the land for white domination. Either he will win, he insists, or he will keep power by force.

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