Skeleton show backfires on Robert Mugabe

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They are president Robert Mugabe's most gruesome election campaign tool yet - hundreds of skeletons, supposedly from the Rhodesian bush war.

Working without protective clothing or forensic experts, untrained youths loyal to Mr Mugabe, are exhuming human remains from a disused mine in northern Mount Darwin - and displaying them as "evidence" of the atrocities committed in the 1970s by the regime of former Rhodesian premier Ian Smith.

But analysts and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party claim the discovery is suspect, not least because some of the remains now being parceled out to "relatives" for burial appear to be considerably less than 30 years old.

The state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) says at least 444 skeletons of guerrilla fighters have been exhumed so far.

In grisly scenes being screened on TV, skulls and limbs are being laid out under a crude shelter for villagers to file past as Mr Mugabe's cronies whip up anti-white and anti-MDC sentiment ahead of elections he is determined to hold this year.

"We are sending a very clear message to the British out there, that they are responsible for this massacre," indigenisation minister Saviour Kasukuwere said in Mount Darwin. "They are responsible for the death of our people and they are not relenting in their desire to cause regime change in our country."

Villagers are being forced to sign Mr Mugabe's anti-sanctions petition after viewing the remains, while schoolchildren were frog-marched down the mine last week to view yet more bodies "so they would appreciate the brutalities of the Rhodesian army," one report said.

The exercise is being spearheaded by a little-known organisation called the Fallen Heroes of Zimbabwe Trust, led by an official of Mugabe's Zanu-PF. The trust has launched a public appeal for funds to continue. Overlooking Mr Mugabe's murderous record - and the fact Mr Smith's Rhodesian Front faced UK sanctions - the president's loyalists say the International Criminal Court should investigate the UK on charges of "genocide".

The MDC - locked in an uneasy coalition with Zanu-PF since 2009 - is suspicious of the timing of this discovery. Owen Gagare of the local NewsDay paper said when he was taken to view the skeletons "one of the bodies still had visible hair". Others were clothed and were reportedly leaking bodily fluids.

Top MDC official Tichaona Mudzingwa says the unsupervised exhumations are "an exercise to bury evidence."

"Probably most of the bodies being exhumed are victims of the 2008 violence," he told the press in a reference to the terror campaign launched by Mr Mugabe's militias after he lost the first round of elections to Mr Tsvangirai.At least 200 MDC supporters are known to have been killed, although the MDC puts the figure at nearer 500. Mr Mugabe has many skeletons in his closet, notably those of up to 20,000 residents of Matabeleland killed by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in the mid-1980s.

Remote Mount Darwin is a Zanu-PF stronghold where MDC supporters live in danger: as the exhumations in the district began last week the local MDC youth chairman was reportedly abducted and beaten.

In a statement, the MDC said the exhumations were a "stark betrayal" of Zimbabweans and called on Zanu-PF to stop them.