Zimbabwe brought to standstill by anti-Mugabe protests

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Riot police in Zimbabwe beat, tear-gassed and shot at demonstrators yesterday as the entire country was brought to a standstill at the beginning of a week of protests aiming to force President Robert Mugabe from power.

The opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was arrested along with six other Movement for Democratic Change MPs and dozens of MDC officials. Mr Tsvangirai was charged with contempt of court for refusing to comply with an order to call off the demonstrations, but was later released.

At least three people were seriously wounded when police opened fire on a crowd in the Harare suburb of Highfield, said an MDC spokesman, Paul Themba Nyathi. He added that police had opened fire in other parts of the country, but he had no details of casualties. A witness in Harare saw a man being treated in hospital for a bullet wound in his leg.

Another witness saw police in Harare forcing about 50 people, some of them women, to lie on the street while they beat them with batons and whips.

In the city centre, members of the ruling party's youth militia, the infamous "green bombers", assaulted any white people they saw.

Police stopped thousands of University of Zimbabwe students from marching into the city. They then stormed the campus, forced some students to lie on the grass and pavements and beat them with whips. They fired teargas canisters into halls of residence.

Witnesses said police also stormed beerhalls and market places in the suburbs of Harare and beat people for failing to go to work.

The MDC claimed the strikes and protests, called the "final push for freedom", had been a success. On Sunday, government helicopters dropped leaflets in major cities and towns calling on Zimbabweans to ignore the protests. The state media repeatedly instructed people to report for work, saying the authorities would protect any strike-breakers. But yesterday, businesses in most urban areas were shut.

Mr Themba Nyathi told The Independent: "We are humbled by the strength and resilience of our people in the face of this naked brutality."

Many Zimbabweans interviewed from Harare said that, although they had been stopped from taking to the streets by the government's use of force, they welcomed the strike. An engineer with a state-owned company, who did not want to be named, said: "If this can't convince Mugabe that he is no longer wanted, then what will?"

The MDC had called for the week of action to force Mr Mugabe to either resign or negotiate. But the police obtained a court order to stop the protests because they were "meant to topple a constitutionally elected government". Mr Tsvangirai said he was not given a chance to argue his case before judge Ben Hlatswayo, who was appointed by Mr Mugabe in 2001 during a campaign to replace independent judges with party loyalists. Mr Hlatswayo had helped draw up a draft constitution which was rejected in a national referendum.

In London, the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called on the Zimbabwe government to respect the rights of citizens to demonstrate.