Zimbabwe protestors attacked by war veterans

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The Independent Online

Former guerrillas of Zimbabwe's independence war on Saturday attacked protesters seeking the ousting of President Robert Mugabe as police fired tear gas to try to disperse the demonstrators.

Veterans of the bush war that led to Zimbabwe's independence from Britain in 1980 appeared to single out whites among the protesters, whom they attacked with whips, clubs, rocks and bricks. An elderly white couple was battered to the ground then kicked while police stood by. It was not clear whether they were even protest marchers. The total number of injured was not immediately known.

"I put the blame squarely on the police for what happened," said businessman Richard Calder, displaying numerous lacerations and bruises. "We were attacked by these so-called war heroes while the police did nothing to control the situation."

Police brandishing batons, shields and riot guns - and appearing in their greatest show of force since eight people were killed in 1988 riots over escalating food prices - erected roadblocks on all major roads leading into the capital early Saturday and turned back vehicles they believed carried demonstrators to the protest march.

Later, police teargassed the demonstrators in central Harare's African Unity Square while air force helicopters swooped over the city.

A judicial order for the march to proceed without hindrance was presented to a senior policeman, who snatched the paper away and threw onto the pavement.

But the efforts failed to halt the protest march organized by the pro-reform National Constitutional Assembly. The government's hold on power is increasingly threatened by opposition groups angered by economic mismanagement, shortages and corruption. Parliamentary elections, expected originally to take place in March, may be called for May.

Among those injured by the war veterans was Andrew Meldrum, a correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, who was struck in the head by a brick and fell bleeding to the roadway.

When the protesters began forming up, they ignored police orders to disperse and boldly ran through the streets of central Harare, gaining support from enthusiastic bystanders. The protesters then doubled back to their gathering point to link up with civil leaders, including prominent lawyers and clerics who had ignored similar orders to disperse.

The demonstration was called to protest against the takeover of more than 700 white-owned farms by black war veterans. Opposition leaders say Mugabe is refusing to have his security forces obey a court order for the squatters to be evicted, in an attempt to gain popular support ahead of the elections.

In Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, another protest march with 4,000 demonstrators proceeded peacefully.