Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe is now like a cornered cat. Faced with a fast-imploding economy, growing opposition from within his ZANU-PF party and a more militant opposition, he has thrown caution to the wind and like a desperate feline is lashing out at those around him.
Zimbabwe appears to be degenerating into chaos as unrest simmers in Harare and other parts of the country, sparked by government-sponsored attacks on political opponents and an economic meltdown that is fuelling public anger against Mugabe and his ruling party.
Matters came to a head on 11 March with the arrest of Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and other political, civil society and student leaders and human rights activists. They were detained as they were on their way to a prayer meeting in the capital Harare, organized by the pro-democracy Christian Alliance.
After their arrest, leaders including Tsvangirai and Lovemore Madhuku, the chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, were badly beaten by police while in custody, according to supporters who gained access to them. Tsvangirai and others were initially denied access to lawyers and health care.
Political analysts had long predicted that a surge in police violence could shift the confrontation between the Mugabe government and its opponents up a gear - taking the fight out onto the streets where it could spiral out of control.
Following the 11 March violence, the unrest spread to the streets of Harare, the eastern city of Mutare and Gweru, the Midlands provincial capital, as activists staged demonstrations demanding the release of the jailed opposition leaders and the ousting of the Mugabe government.
But the ageing president has held out, rejecting the opposition's demands.
Human rights workers, opposition leaders and international officials argue that the chaos is part of an orchestrated campaign by the Zimbabwean authorities to ensure the re-election of Mugabe, an increasingly unpopular leader who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980.
"This is a political game that is being played," said Alois Chaumba, national chairman of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. "There is no way we could have free and fair elections because of the amount of intimidation going on at the moment."
Tevedzerai Marecha, an office worker in the capital, said, "Seven years ago Zimbabwe was a wonderful country. Now we are in hell; we are slowly hurtling towards civil war."
The MDC, Zimbabwe's leading opposition party, said trigger-happy police loyal to Mugabe had killed three of its members in recent days, in what it said were politically-motivated attacks.
The authorities in Zimbabwe confirmed only one of the killings - that of Gift Tandare, killed as security forces moved to head off the meeting at Highfield . Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said Tandare was shot dead after attacking police officers on the way to the assembly
Police claimed the meeting - organized by the Save Zimbabwe Coalition, an emerging alliance which brings together all the opposition parties, civic groups and church organizations - was in fact an anti-Mugabe political rally disguised as a prayer meeting so as to circumvent a ban on such events under the draconian Public Order and Security Act.
Lawyers representing the detained opposition and civic leaders had to file an urgent application to the High Court Chamber to gain access to their clients. It took a High Court order from Justice Chinembiri Bhunu for the detained leaders to be allowed to see their lawyers and receive medical attention.
In a serious indictment of the law enforcement agencies, the court conceded that detainees had been tortured. Justice Bhunu later issued an order demanding that they be brought before the courts immediately for an initial remand hearing.