(CNSNews.com) - Just two weeks ahead of an election in which he is to challenge embattled President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has been charged with treason.
Critics see in the move yet another attempt by an increasingly isolated Mugabe to rig the March 9-10 election in his favor.
Analysts believe the charismatic former trade unionist poses the most serious challenge faced by Mugabe since he assumed power at independence in 1980.
The U.S., United Nations and others have expressed concern that the president will not respect the election result, noting that the campaign itself has been marred by violent intimidation. Mugabe supporters have even attacked foreign monitors.
Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said he was formally charged in the capital, Harare, during questioning by police, who have accused him of conspiring to assassinate Mugabe.
He did not intend to call off his campaign for president, he added.
Tsvangirai was allegedly caught on videotape during a meeting in Montreal, discussing plans with members of a Canadian political consultancy, Dickens and Madson, to eliminate Mugabe.
"These are contrived charges and of course the whole thing smacks of political conspiracy to undermine my political image in the country," he said of the allegations.
Tsvangirai says he is the victim of a dirty-tricks frame-up orchestrated by consultants paid by Mugabe.
The key Dickens and Madson figure involved is a former Israeli intelligence officer, Ari Ben-Menashe, who works as a lobbyist for Mugabe.
Ben-Menashe is a controversial figure who emerged during the Iran-Contra affair.
His credibility has been called into question in the past, with leading media organizations reporting that he had been exposed as a liar when claiming to have witnessed a 1980 meeting in Paris between then Vice-President George Bush senior and a top Iranian official.
An American Jewish organization later pointed out that Bush was addressing its meeting in Washington on the day Ben-Menashe claimed he have seen the vice-president in France.
An independent Zimbabwe media-monitoring group said this week the videotape showing the purported plotting had apparently been manipulated and edited to implicate Tsvangirai.
"On the evidence of the [Zimbabwe TV] footage, the Montreal meeting was clearly an attempt by the consultancy company to stitch up Tsvangirai and lure him into making apparently incriminating comments in response to speculative questions about the possibility of Mugabe's assassination," Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe director Andrew Moyse concluded.
Meanwhile, Mugabe supporters have dismissed new U.S. sanctions, calling them a Western ploy to help the MDC win the election.
President Bush last Friday ordered a ban on entry into the U.S. of Mugabe and other senior government officials and members of their families.
"We are not surprised at the sanctions," said Didymus Mutasa, external secretary for the ruling ZANU-PF party. "The aim is to put us under pressure and to give an advantage to the opposition."
Mutasa said the sanctions would not work. "They will not soften our resolve to defend Zimbabwe's sovereignty."
The U.S. move followed one by the European Union to impose "smart sanctions" on Zimbabwe, including a travel ban on Mugabe and about 20 close associates as well as a freeze on any assets they hold in EU member states.
The sanctions have done little to halt the violence, and southern African election observers have expressed doubts about the chances for a free and fair poll.
In a particularly gruesome incident, an opposition representative was murdered in a small town called Tsholotsho, about 200 km east of Harare, allegedly by Mugabe loyalists.
Eyewitnesses say ZANU-PF supporters surrounded Halaza Johnson Sibindi's house, attacked it and, on finally gaining entry, decapitated him.
Analysts say the urban population is seen as a lost cause, and so ZANU-PF has focused its attention on rural areas.
One apparent procedure is for youths to identify leading community figures, who are then visited and invited to produce a valid ZANU-PF membership card. Those who cannot are assaulted.
Another reported tactic involves the setting up of arbitrary roadblocks on rural roads. Taxis and busses are stopped and occupants asked for their identity papers, which are then confiscated. Without such documents, Zimbabweans cannot vote.
Despite the intimidation and violence, South African President Thabo Mbeki continues to defy calls by Western leaders to take tough action against its northern neighbor.
Mbeki insists free and fair elections will take place in Zimbabwe despite the instability.
(CNSNews.com correspondent Mark Klusener contributed to this report.)
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