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By Staff Reporter

ZIMBABWE has admitted to training over 18000 youths under its controversial national youth service programme, the subject of a recent storm after a BBC documentary said children were being brainwashed and turned into political zombies.

The revelation largely confirms details of a BBC investigation which said President Robert Mugabe's regime had set up secret camps across the country in which thousands of youths are taught how to torture and kill his opponents.

In accounts gathered by BBC Panorama programme “dozens of youths” claimed rape and torture within the training camps were commonplace.

The government insists the training centres are purely for job training but its opponents say they are a grand plan to brainwash young children and keep President Mugabe in power.

Responding to questions by MDC defence secretary Giles Mutsekwa, outgoing Youth Development Minister Elliot Manyika revealed at least 18180 youths had undergone training between 2001 and December last year.

Manyika said most of them had been employed in several government ministries, immediately raising questions whether the youths’ basic military training prepared them for employment by government departments.

The youths are churned out by six training centres dotted across the country, namely Border Gezi in Mashonaland Central, Guyu in Matabeleland South, Mushagashe in Masvingo, Dadaya in Midlands, Kamativi in Matabeleland North and Vumba in Manicaland.

Recent reports say the government plans to widen recruitment by setting up more centres in Mashonaland East and West, Harare and Bulawayo expected to be operational this year.

The BBC said thousands had been brutalised to ensure their loyalty.

"In their training camps the Zimbabwean government is subjecting thousands of innocent youths to rape, brainwashing and brutality," it said in a statement about the programme. "It is all part of a horrific process designed to mould youths loyal to Robert Mugabe and his ZANU party."

Mugabe's supporters and security forces have clashed in recent years with opponents from the Movement for Democratic Change, which has emerged as the most potent challenge to Mugabe in 24 years of rule.

The BBC's Africa reporter, Hilary Andersson, said the programme team and human rights groups had interviewed almost 100 former camp youths for the Panorama documentary, "Secrets of the Camps".

Around 50 percent of the girls said they were regularly raped in the camps. One, Debbie, said she was raped nightly for six months after being forced into a camp aged 20, and contracted HIV and fell pregnant before fleeing to South Africa.

"Youths testified to being taught how to torture with electricity, or by hanging victims upside down and lowering their heads into buckets of water below until they nearly drown," Andersson wrote in Britain's Sunday Telegraph.

She said a former Youth Ministry official had confirmed that killings and hit lists were discussed openly at ministry meetings, and a camp commander interviewed said youths from his camp had been sent out to kill opponents of the government.

Andersson said six large camps housed thousands of Zimbabweans aged 11 to 30. An estimated 50,000 youths had already passed through the camps, and Mugabe wanted to make the training compulsory for all young Zimbabweans in a bid to help him secure victory in parliamentary elections in 2005.

Mugabe, accused by the opposition and several Western countries of rigging the 2002 presidential polls, rejects charges that his mismanagement is to blame for Zimbabwe's critical shortages of food, fuel and foreign exchange.

Instead, the former guerrilla leader, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, accuses Western powers of seeking his overthrow because of his seizure of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to landless blacks.

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