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Zim riot police break up anti-govt demos, scores arrested

19th November 2003

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Zimbabwe police arrested scores of trade unionists and rights activists yesterday as they gathered to stage protests across the southern African state against alleged rights abuses and the sky-rocketting cost of living, witnesses said.

In the second largest city, Bulawayo, riot police moved in immediately to disperse around 2 000 people who had gathered outside government offices to hand over a petition to the governor of the province.

The protesters held running battles with riot police, and several people were injured, according to a witness and an official from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), which organized the protests.

"The people just massed," the union official said via cellphone, adding that the police had initially failed to prevent the protesters gathering.

But minutes later police could be heard breaking up the demonstration.

They also made an unknown number of arrests.

Jenni Williams, a spokesperson for the rights group Women of Zimbabwe Arise, who took part in the demonstration, said she had been briefly handcuffed and arrested in the police crackdown.

The "peaceful demonstration" was broken up by police with batons and dogs, she said.

"They were forcing us to run by beating us so they could set the dogs on us," she asserted via cellphone from Bulawayo.

"Many of us are badly wounded by baton sticks," she added.

In the capital, Harare, ZCTU had announced plans to march to government offices to hand over a petition to the finance ministry, but groups of baton-wielding riot police stood guard on every street corner.

Around 40 rights activists and union leaders were arrested as they gathered outside town hall in central Harare for the protest, one of those arrested said by cellphone from the police station.

Lovemore Madhuku, a prominent constitutional lawyer, said top officials of the ZCTU, the largest labour grouping in Zimbabwe formerly headed by opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, were among those arrested.

The ZCTU had last week called for nationwide demonstrations to protest at deteriorating living conditions and alleged rights abuses under the government of President Robert Mugabe.

The labour group's secretary general and president, Wellington Chibebe and Lovemore Matombo, were arrested in the police swoop in Harare, according to Madhuku.

Photojournalists were also among those arrested, according to an eyewitness.

Earlier yesterday nine officials of the union's general council were arrested at a hotel in central Harare as they held a meeting, ZCTU spokesperson Mlamleli Sibanda said.

Sibanda said those arrested included the labour grouping's vice president Elias Mlotshwa and the head of a teachers union, Raymond Majongwe.

Eight more union officials were arrested in the central city of Gweru, another in Bulawayo, and one in Gwanda, a southern Zimbabwean town, Sibanda said.

He claimed one person was struck and injured by a lorry as he tried to flee the police in Bulawayo.

Police were not able to immediately confirm the arrests, but they had declared the planned nationwide protests illegal and threatened to clamp down on any such action.

On Monday a defiant ZCTU chief Chibebe vowed that the protesters would not be deterred.

He said Mugabe's government should not "interfere with bona fide trade union work and (should) let the workers of Zimbabwe express their feelings over the mess the economy is in".

Zimbabwe is in the throes of severe economic hardship, with the annual inflation rate above 525%, 70% of the work force unemployed and chronic shortages of food, fuel and medicines due to a lack of hard currency to import them.

Those Zimbabweans who do have jobs have seen take-home wages eroded to levels that barely cover monthly transport costs.

Last month close to 200 ZCTU activists and officials, including Chibebe, were arrested for holding demonstrations in cities around Zimbabwe. – Sapa-AFP.
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