At least six opposition and rights activists were abducted and tortured by unidentified assailants in Zimbabwe ahead of planned protests against worsening economic problems, rights groups charged Thursday.
"We note with regret that six people so far were abducted by suspected state agents in the evening of 13 and 14 August 2019, and they have been severely tortured and left for dead," said a statement released by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, a coalition of 21 human rights groups.
Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) plans to launch protests marches on Friday against the worsening economy, defying government threats to stop them.
If they go ahead, the protests will be the first since rallies in January against President Emmerson Mnangagwa's decision to hike fuel prices that ended in deadly clashes with troops.
The MDC has blamed the government for the abductions this week, saying they follow a familiar pattern of a government under pressure.
MDC youth leader Obey Sithole told a press conference Wednesday that after the party said it was organising protest actions, the government went into "panic" and "some of the tactics they are employing are to abduct people".
In an apparent rebuttal of the accusations, government spokesman Nick Mangwana said it "noted with concern and distress reports of alleged abductions and torture of citizens by unknown assailants.
"These allegations and any other will be professionally investigated to their final conclusion and the outcomes shared with the public," Mangwana said.
He charged that there were "discharged and disgruntled former members of the old establishment" who were trying to "impair President Emmerson Mnangagwa's image as a reformer".
Reports of the abductions come as the new administration has prioritised normalising relations with western governments following two decades of isolation over alleged human rights abuses.
The US and British governments have expressed concern.
"Harassment and intimidation have no place in a democratic and pluralistic society," the US embassy in Harare tweeted.
Britain the former colonial master urged the government "to uphold the constitution, ensure these incidents don't continue and hold those responsible to account."
The opposition has vowed to go ahead with its protests, as millions are hit by a shortage of basic goods and skyrocketing prices, according to the UN food agency.
Around five million people, or a third of the 16 million Zimbabweans, are in need of aid and at least half of them are on the cusp of "starvation", the World Food Programme (WFP) said on August 6.