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Police in Zimbabwe crush opposition gathering in capital

The Baltimore Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Hundreds of Zimbabwe's riot police officers violently crushed yesterday an attempt by protesters to hold what they called a prayer meeting in one of the capital's largest slums to express opposition to President Robert G. Mugabe's rule.

Beatrice Mtetwa, a civil rights lawyer in Harare, the capital, said at least 35 people had been arrested, including the leaders of the two rival political factions that oppose Mugabe's governing party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front.

A spokesman for the Harare police said later that one demonstrator had been shot and killed while leading protesters who were throwing stones at officers. Three police officers were hospitalized with injuries, the government said.

The arrests underscored the growing scope of unrest in Zimbabwe, where the annual inflation rate now exceeds 1,700 percent, and many basic foods and commodities are either not available or too expensive for average citizens. The government imposed an outright ban on public gatherings in Highfield, the scene of the confrontation yesterday, after the police fought a running battle with hundreds of antigovernment demonstrators there three weeks ago.

Protesters had apparently sought to sidestep the ban by calling the gathering a prayer meeting, not a political gathering. Mtetwa, who is representing some of those seized, said at least 200 people had been in the streets in Highfield before the arrests occurred and that an unknown number of people were roughed up by the police as they tried to enter the area.

"Police had cordoned off Highfield since yesterday," said a Harare journalist, who spoke anonymously for fear of government retribution. "You couldn't get into the area." A spokesman for the national police, Wayne Bvudzijena, was quoted by news agencies as telling journalists in Harare that the meeting was subject to the government ban on political protest, "and we expect everyone to respect those banning orders." Mugabe's government has suppressed political demonstrations in recent weeks as the nation's economic problems turned from bad to worse.

The protest was to have been an unusual display of unity by political and civic groups that have unanimously called for an end to Mugabe's 27-year rule but have bitterly split over tactics. The opposition factions and civic groups had united for the meeting under the banner of the "Save Zimbabwe Campaign."

The police arrested Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, the leaders of rival factions of the Movement for Democratic Change, the only political opposition group of note in Zimbabwe. Agence France-Presse reported that the police had also arrested four national legislators from the Movement for Democratic Change, as well as Tsvangirai's spokesman.

They also arrested Lovemore Madhuku, who runs the National Constitutional Assembly, Zimbabwe's largest civic organization. Madhuku has frequently been arrested, and arsonists attacked his home several weeks ago.

Mtetwa said lawyers had been denied access to the arrested protesters and that one of her aides was assaulted and ordered to leave a police station when he sought to contact them.

Mugabe has acknowledged that some Zimbabweans are suffering economic hardship, but he has seemed unfazed by protests, publicly at least. In an interview jointly published yesterday by state-controlled media in Zimbabwe and by a newspaper in Namibia, where he recently completed a state visit, Mugabe, 83, indicated that he might seek re-election in 2008.

"If the party says so, I will stand," he was quoted as saying.

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