HARARE, ZIMBABWE (AFP)--Violence between white farmers and blacks in Zimbabwe in which two people have been killed and several injured in recent weeks has sparked fears of an upsurge in racial conflict ahead of presidential polls next year. "I think in the months to come we are going to see a lot of racial tension as part of a conflict that is going to manifest itself in many other forms, including inter-party conflict," said Joseph Kurebwa, a University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer.

He was commenting on clashes in the northwestern town of Chinhoyi Aug. 6 between white farmers and blacks who have settled on their land, which left several people injured on both sides and saw 23 farmers arrested.

Also Aug. 6, a white farmer died of injuries he received during a brutal attack last week on his home in which his hands were tied with wire and he was hit on the head with an axe.

The incidents have ratcheted up tension in already racially-riven farming communities, according to media reports.

Following the clashes in Chinhoyi, whites in the farming town have come under threat and some have been physically assaulted, the state-run Herald reported.

"Angry resettled (black) farmers and ordinary people yesterday retaliated and attacked several whites in Chinhoyi," it said.The privately owned Daily News reported at least 10 white people, including a 64-year-old man and his wife, were attacked by ruling ZANU-PF party youths in Chinhoyi.

The Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU) offices in the town were closed and police reportedly advised white people there to stay out of sight.

The clash came just two weeks after a white farmer allegedly killed a black would-be settler in eastern Zimbabwe, running over him with his van at high speed and dragging his body for several meters (yards).

Veterans of the country's 1970s liberation war interpreted the incident as a declaration of war.

"If the whites start fighting us, then we have to retaliate," said acting chairman of the war veterans association Patrick Nyaruwata.

This week's incidents are the latest in a bitter dispute between landless blacks and white farm owners which has seen bloodshed and farm invasions since early last year.

The CFU which represents 4,500 mostly white farmers last month reported an increase in burning of fields, eviction orders, and hostage-takings by the self-styled war veterans who have occupied hundreds of farms here for 18 months.

Last month private media reported that 45 farmers near the northern town of Karoi, north of Chinhoyi, were forced to abandon their farms, due to increased violence.

Kurebwa said the use of violence by government as a tool has a spiralling effect.

"It works in the short term until such a time that whites consider themselves as an endangered species and see every black settler as a potential risk," he said.

John Makumbe, a University of Zimbabwe political scientist, also predicted a bitter build up to next year's presidential poll.

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