Three million in strike against Mugabe 'tyranny'

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The Independent Online

Zimbabwe ground to a standstill yesterday when almost three million workers staged a largely peaceful strike in defiance of President Robert Mugabe, who branded their action illegal.

Virtually all factories and most shops in the main urban centres were closed as the nation heeded a call by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) to stay at home to protest against a recent 70 per cent increase in the price of fuel, and President Robert Mugabe's "continued mismanagement of the Zimbabwean economy and his escalating human rights abuses". Reacting to the popular support for the two-day stayaway – expected to cost the country's limping economy more than 20 million pounds – Washington Matombo, the ZCTU president, said: "I am humbled by the people's response. This is a clear message against Mugabe's continued tyranny and misrule of this country ... The people cannot take it any more."

Zimbabweans ignored persistent warnings on state radio that they should report for work because the strike was illegal. The government put the entire Zimbabwe National Army and police on standby in anticipation of violence.

Militants from the Zimbabwe War Veterans' Association said they would attack foreign companies that closed during the stayaway. "We want to identify such people and if they are not citizens of this country we are going to deal with them ... [make] them evacuate our country within a day," Joseph Chinotimba, one of the veterans' leaders, told state radio.

Police patrols continued in some of Harare's restive townships late yesterday and roadblocks were mounted around big cities and towns.

The government had said it would deploy buses to carry people to work and would cancel the licenses of private transport operators supporting the strike. But few buses of the state-owned Zimbabwe United Omnibus Company were seen carrying commuters.

The strike action was largely peaceful. In the capital, Harare, police said three bread delivery trucks had been looted and the suspects had been arrested.

In Epworth township, two photographers from the Associated Press news agency, and from the opposition Daily News were arrested when they tried to take pictures of a group of policemen on patrol.

Marking a significant show of support and a departure from South Africa's uncertain diplomatic stance in past months, the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) said it backed the strike and accused Mugabe of "terrorising the economy and ordinary citizens".

Reports from Mutare in the east, Masvingo in the south and Bulawayo in the south-west said many businesses were shut, although government offices were functioning.

The ZCTU is a close ally of Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has emerged in the past year as President Mugabe's most serious challenger since he came to power 21 years ago.

Political tension has barely abated since a violent campaign in the run-up to general elections in June last year, when at least 31 people died. The violence was blamed on the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF). The MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is expected to challenge 77-year-old President Mugabe in an election due by May next year.

Zimbabwe's economic crisis has pushed unemployment above 60 per cent and inflation above 70 per cent. An estimated 70 per cent of Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people live in poverty.

Previous national work stoppages organised by the ZCTU have successfully shut down the economy. A series of strikes in 1998 escalated into food riots. Eight people were killed in clashes with police and troops.

The ZCTU represents about 90 per cent of the organised labour force, about 1.2 million workers in 32 affiliated unions.