A Zimbabwean white farmers' organization said Thursday they had seen a "renewed onslaught" of farm seizures and attacks, including the slayings of two farmers, in recent weeks.
Deon Theron, head of the Commercial Farmers Union that represents Zimbabwe's dwindling number of white farmers _ some 300 whites still hold farmland _ said the attacks followed an announcement last month from President Robert Mugabe that scheduled a constitutional referendum and national elections early next year. He said police and security authorities have refused to act against a new wave of "violence, evictions and occupations" in the build-up to polling.
That "signals the start of a renewed onslaught against rural communities" by Mugabe's loyalists, Theron said in a statement.
In several districts "hired thugs" broke into homesteads and locked the owners out, leaving them with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, the statement said.
Mugabe last month vowed to call elections next year to end the nation's shaky coalition with his longtime rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
The troubled power-sharing deal is due to expire at the two-year mark, in February. Mugabe said it won't be extended by more than a few weeks until elections can be held.
Two farmers have died in robberies and at least three have been forced from their homes in the Banket district, 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of Harare, in the past two weeks.
In the early hours of darkness Monday, intruders killed prominent farmer Kobus Joubert, 67, by shooting him in the head at point-blank range at his home in that district.
The intruders attacked his wife, ransacked the house and stole money and cell phones.
The couple were illegally evicted from the farm by militants in 2008 but later won a court order allowing them to return.
Smallholder farmer Tim Chance was killed in an ambush with his own firearms stolen by intruders in an earlier raid on his home in the Somabhula area, near the central city of Gweru.
Theron, head of the farmers' organization, said military officers also took over a farm in the eastern Nyazura district. He said the farm's owner, 73-year-old Tiennie van Rensburg, on Thursday was still trying to remove farm equipment and other goods.
Theron said a colonel visited the farm and told the owner to leave within 72 hours or be evicted by the army.
When van Rensburg also obtained court papers protecting him, "a group of eight thugs was sent to the farm around midnight to remove the owners. They beat up van Rensburg's guard and then, armed with his gun, gave the couple 10 minutes to vacate the property," the statement said.
Two farms owned by German and French investors have also been seized despite bilateral investment protection agreements. Claims by another 13 evicted farmers of Dutch origin for compensation under investment agreements between Zimbabwe and the Dutch government have been dismissed by Zimbabwean courts.
About 4,000 white farmers have been forced from their farms since 2000, disrupting the agriculture-based economy in the former regional breadbasket. Many prize farms went to Mugabe cronies and still lie idle.
Government comment was not immediately available, but in the past Mugabe's party and security agencies have denied reports of violent farm seizures.
Mugabe insists the takeovers were to correct colonial-era imbalances in land ownership and blames the economic meltdown on Western sanctions targeting him and his party elite for perpetrating violations of human and democratic rights.