MORGAN Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's opposition leader, has warned that his country is on the brink of civil war.
Speaking after police arrested more than 150 people for demonstrating against worsening poverty, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said Zimbabwe was teetering "on the precipice of a full-scale national conflict".
New figures released yesterday showed annual inflation in this once-thriving southern African country has shot to 411 per cent.
David Chapfika, Zimbabwe's deputy finance minister, admitted that civil servants could not even afford to buy "four bottles of cooking oil" with their salaries, the state-run Herald newspaper reported.
Mr Tsvangirai said the government of Robert Mugabe, the president, had declared "war" against the people.
"The power of the people is strengthening and soon every village, growth point, hamlet, town and city shall register the national sentiment on a scale never seen in this country before," he said.
The warning came as police arrested more government critics ahead of this month's controversial senate elections.
Lovemore Madhuku, a veteran civil rights leader was arrested on Tuesday for his part in organising a demonstration at the weekend.
Misheck Shoko, the opposition mayor of Chitungwiza, near the capital, was also detained for allegedly encouraging people to join the demonstrations.
"Political violence will be dealt with immediately and decisively," the police commissioner, Augustine Chihuri, said.
Police carted six student leaders away from the University of Zimbabwe on Wednesday, a day after countrywide demonstrations called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, reports said.
At least 150 protesters were still in custody late yesterday, more than 48 hours after they were arrested.
Lawyers said the police wanted to charge them under Zimbabwe's notorious Public Order and Security Act.
"The actions of the Mugabe regime vindicate our calls for a new Zimbabwe, a new beginning and a new constitution," Mr Tsvangirai said.
He said the MDC would now "tackle tyranny head-on".
The opposition leader appears to have regained his position at the head of the party he helped found six years ago.
But there are still indications that the MDC will split, probably along ethnic lines. Mr Tsvangirai precipitated a party crisis last month when he declared the MDC would not take part in the 26 November senate polls.
He says Mr Mugabe stole the last three elections here. The MDC leader has threatened to expel 26 party members who registered as candidates for the elections if they refused to withdraw before midnight tonight.
Most of the dissenting candidates are Ndebele, from the Matabeleland provinces.
In his statement, the MDC leader said elections organised by Zimbabwe's ruling party could never deliver "a meaningful result".
"Our structures accept the demands from the people for an onslaught that shall deliver a result necessary for the introduction of democracy and good governance on our land," he said.
Mr Mugabe's secret police are reported to have warned the 81-year-old president of growing hostility last month.
"People have grown impatient with the government, which they accuse of causing their problems and doing nothing to alleviate them and they will do anything to remove it from power," one report quoted an internal memo from the Central Intelligence Organisation.
State radio announced yesterday an impending rise in electricity tariffs, likely to force many people back to using paraffin. But with Zimbabwe's worsening shortages, there is no paraffin for sale.