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Intimidation, revenge violence reported by labor officials, farmers in Zimbabwe

(HARARE, Zimbabwe) - A national strike called to protest Zimbabwe's disputed elections appeared to nearly fizzle out Thursday, a failure that labor leaders blamed on repressive new laws and government intimidation.

Meanwhile, white farmers accused ruling party militants of attacking them as part of a new campaign of violence intended to punish them for perceived support of the opposition in the March 9-11 elections.

The Commercial Farmers Union said at least 50 farmers were illegally evicted from their properties since the elections, which many observers criticized as badly tainted. The government declared Mugabe the victor.

One farmer died Monday in an execution-style killing, a farm worker was killed in a separate assault, hundreds of workers were forced to flee their jobs and 66 farmers were arrested after providing logistical support for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, the union said.

Most of those arrested face charges they violated new security laws by using licensed radio equipment for political activities, the union said.

Labor leaders said authorities also used the new laws to prevent them from meeting freely with workers to coordinate the three-day nationwide protest strike that began Wednesday.

Some factories remained closed Thursday, but most banks and shops reopened and government offices, post offices and schools never closed.

The federation estimated about half of Harare's businesses were curtailed by early Wednesday, declining to about a third in the afternoon as workers showed up at their jobs.

Labor officials around the country reported police, troops and ruling party militants taking down the names of people who did not report for work.

Police and army vehicles patrolled Harare's poor townships at night, closing bars and food stalls and warning that the strike was illegal under new security laws, witnesses said.

``Times have changed. If we had organized in the old way, every one of our activists would have been arrested,'' said Collen Gwiyo, deputy secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, the biggest labor federation.

Though international leaders have appealed for reconciliation in the country, which has been plagued by violence and intimidation over the past two years, Zimbabwe remains as tense as ever.

Authorities charged opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai with treason Wednesday and released him on bail in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate Mugabe.

Tsvangirai has denied the accusation, dismissing the charges as a government ploy devised to weaken the opposition.

The charges came a day after the Commonwealth of Britain and its former colonies suspended Zimbabwe from the organization's meetings for one year, citing the ``high level of politically motivated'' violence in the vote.

South African President Thabo Mbeki and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo had urged Mugabe and Tsvangirai to form a government of national unity to help lead Zimbabwe to peace and economic stability.

Tsvangirai has rejected the proposal and demanded a new vote.

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