Harare - Suspected state agents have abducted an official from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, bringing to at least 19 the number of MDC supporters and civil society activists to have been whisked away without trace in recent weeks, according to an MDC official.

Gandhi Mudzingwa, a former personal assistant to MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who was working on the party's transition policy, was seized by a group of armed men while driving in Harare on Monday, George Sibotshiwe, a spokesperson for Tsvangirai, said on Tuesday.

The MDC suspects his abductors were members of the feared Central Intelligence Organisation, which is also suspected of the abduction last week of prominent activist Jestina Mukoko.

Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), was taken from her home by a dozen armed men. Her whereabouts are unknown. Two other members of the ZPP have since also been abducted.

Meanwhile, a group of 15 MDC members who were detained by police a month ago in Mashonaland West province are also still missing, despite a court order that they be brought to court or released.

The disappearances are part of a new crackdown by President Robert Mugabe's regime against the opposition that began after talks between his Zanu-PF party and the MDC on the formation of a unity government.

Some analysts believe Mugabe may again be trying to "soften up" the opposition in advance of possible fresh elections. "That's a definite possibility," said Brian Raftopoulos, director of research and advocacy for the Solidarity Peace Trust, a South Africa-based NGO that campaigns for freedom and democracy in Zimbabwe.

"There was always speculation that if the mediation stalled, Mugabe would hammer structures in the country and call new elections," Raftopoulos said.

Mugabe himself last week told a group of supporters to be ready for new elections.

It is unclear how such a move, which the MDC would likely oppose, would resolve Mugabe's legitimacy issues. His re-election as president in an unopposed, violent vote in June was dismissed by the international community as a sham. - Sapa-dpa