Scuffles halt Zimbabwe conference

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The Independent Online

Militants from President Robert Mugabe's party disrupted a national conference aimed at drawing up a new constitution on today in a setback for Zimbabwe's unity government.

The collapse of the meeting in disarray appeared to be another sign of Mugabe's determination to resist constitutional reforms, which might loosen his grip on the country he has ruled for nearly three decades.

When Mugabe did not arrive at the meeting on time, Parliament Speaker Lovemore Moyo, a member of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, began his opening remarks but was drowned out by militants singing revolutionary songs. That set off scuffles with supporters of former opposition leader Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, and Moyo was forced to withdraw.

A Movement for Democratic Change councilor sustained serious head injuries after he was hit with an unidentified object at the conference, a statement by the party said.

Under Zimbabwe's unity government, an agreement that brought Mugabe and Tsvangirai together in February, a new constitution must be drawn up ahead of new elections within two years.

Many delegates at today's meeting alleged that the disruption was planned, citing a lack of security at the venue that allowed thousands of Mugabe loyalists to stream in.

"It is outrageous. This is delinquent behaviour," said Philius Njira, a member of a constitutional reform group.

The convention center, which can hold 5,000 people, was filled to capacity, with hundreds more seated in aisles and on stairways. Organizers had tried to limit each party to 600 delegates and 240 for veterans of Zimbabwe's war for independence. Delegates from civil society groups also were invited.

Before the opening, dancing and ululating Mugabe militants showed the clenched fist salute of his ZANU-PF party, while Movement for Democratic Change supporters waved their open hands.

Leaflets on constitutional reform were handed out, but ZANU-PF supporters tore them up and threw them to the floor.

Inside the crowded venue, there were minor scuffles, with opposing supporters pushing and shoving each other. One woman was seen slapping another female delegate.

Mugabe was scheduled to open the conference at 10 a.m. (0800 GMT), but when he had not arrived two hours later, Moyo said the conference would begin the process of writing the "supreme law" of the country.

"A constitution is about people deciding how they are governed. It is not about the government or anyone else telling the people how they want to be governed," he said, before he was drowned out.

Eric Matinenga, the minister of constitutional affairs, who withdrew from the dais along with Moyo, told reporters that organizers were meeting to try and salvage the conference. But hundreds of delegates had streamed out of the convention center, and there was still no sign of Mugabe.

Nelson Chamisa, a spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change, told reporters that Tsvangirai was meeting with Mugabe to discuss the disruption of the meeting by "well coordinated ZANU-PF cadres."

But there was no further information on when constitutional proceedings would resume. By late afternoon, police had cordoned off the convention center, and most delegates had left the venue.

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