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Monday, February 19, 2007

Riot police patrol restive Zimbabwe township

HARARE, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Zimbabwean riot police patrolled a Harare township on Monday to stop possible unrest a day after crushing an opposition rally the government feared would spark a new street campaign against President Robert Mugabe.

Heavily armed riot squads prevented the Movement for Democratic Change from holding a court-approved rally in Highfield on Sunday, firing teargas and water cannon to drive away stone-throwing protesters and arresting 122 people.

Political analysts said the crackdown had stoked tensions in the southern African country, where people are struggling with a desperate economic crisis, unemployment is surging, and where critics say Mugabe is trampling over human rights.

The European Union on Monday extended sanctions on Zimbabwe for another year, including an arms embargo, travel ban and asset freeze on Mugabe and other top officials over charges of rights violations.

The sanctions were initially triggered by the controversial distribution of white-owned commercial farms to mainly landless blacks and Mugabe's disputed re-election in 2002.

On Monday, riot squads on foot and in armoured trucks were still patrolling the streets of Highfield, but in smaller numbers than on Sunday.

Police armed with guns, rubber batons, shields, teargas canisters and launchers were also on guard at the poor township's main shopping mall, traditionally a flashpoint for political clashes.

"It's quiet here, but you can see there that they are not quite sure yet," one resident told a Reuters journalist, nodding towards one police patrol.

Tension has been rising in recent months over Zimbabwe's deteriorating economy and skyrocketing cost of living, prompting some workers, including doctors and teachers, to embark on wage strikes as inflation tops 1,600 percent.

The High Court on Saturday ordered the government to allow the MDC to hold its rally, rejecting police arguments that they needed more time to find the manpower to monitor it.


State media suggested the authorities were worried that the MDC wanted to use the event to launch a wave of anti-government protests, and stopped it "for security and political reasons".

The media said the rally was to be part of a British-backed drive "to galvanise the regime-change lobby" and embarrass Mugabe, who turns 83 this week and will celebrate his birthday at a huge party organised by his governing ZANU-PF on Saturday.

"I think the government's heavy-handed approach yesterday, the decision to ignore the court order and use force has further damaged its image at home and abroad," said Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe.

"Both here and internationally, they are reinforcing the impression that they are in trouble, and the use or show of force is just going to worsen the tension, it's adding fuel to the fire," he said.

The MDC had said it planned to use the rally to launch its presidential election campaign. The election is due in March 2008 but the ruling ZANU-PF party plans to put it off until 2010 and to hold it at the same time as parliamentary elections.

The MDC says Zimbabwe cannot afford Mugabe, charging that the man who has led the country since independence from Britain in 1980 is to blame for the economic crisis.

Along with the world's highest inflation rate, Zimbabwe has seen unemployment climb to 80 percent while food, fuel and foreign exchange are in short supply.

Critics blame the crisis on Mugabe's politically driven policies, including the farm seizures. The veteran leader says Zimbabwe is the victim of economic sabotage by his enemies. (Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander in Brussels)
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