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Opposition leader warns Zambia faces violence if talks with president fail

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Zambia faces violence if a national dialogue brokered by the Commonwealth between the government and the opposition fails to reconcile the two sides, the main opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema said on Thursday.

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Hichilema was freed from prison in August after the state dropped charges of plotting to overthrow the government, but a judge warned him he could be arrested again at any time.

The case heightened political friction in Zambia, a major copper producer which is seen as one of Africa’s more stable democracies, after a bruising election last year in which President Edgar Lungu’s Patriotic Front defeated Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND).

“Let me assure you, today in Zambia if you wore a UPND T-shirt, my party’s T-shirt, you would be committing suicide because you can be killed for wearing that,” he told media in Cape Town.

Nevertheless, Hichilema said he was confident the talks would succeed in preserving order in the southern African nation.

“If we were not confident, we would not embark on it, we would not be part of the process (talks). But, there is no alternative to that, the alternative is brutality and counter-brutality and lives will be lost,” he told media in Cape Town.

Hichilema, a wealthy businessman who is commonly known as “HH”, said the dialogue was anchored on issues that led to strife in Zambia, among them, restoring human rights, protecting press freedom and ensuring the independence of the judiciary.

“So when an election comes, we would have corrected these inadequacies that have created negative conditions in our country,” he said. The next general elections are due in 2021.

Hichilema called on the trade regional body SADC and South Africa to support the reconciliation talks.

Zambia’s High Commissioner to South Africa, Emmanuel Mwamba, rejected Hichilema’s claims, saying the opposition leader’s release from prison showed that the rule of law was upheld.

“His own release demonstrates that Zambia has rule of law and is a tested democracy,” he told Reuters via text message. “That’s a demonstration of the independence of the judiciary.”

Mwamba said newspapers and radio stations were operating normally.

Government and legal sources told Reuters Zambia would drop the treason charges and free Hichilema under a deal brokered by Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland.

Scotland visited Zambia earlier in August and separately met Lungu and Hichilema, who was still in detention, and said the two leaders had agreed to a process of dialogue facilitated by her office to achieve political cohesion and reconciliation.

Additional reporting by Chris Mfula in Lusaka; Editing by James Macharia/Keith Weir