Zimbabwe protests stifled by riot police

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The Independent Online

Scattered clashes broke out yesterday as hundreds of police officers blockaded cities and towns in Zimbabwe to thwart street protests called by a coalition of civic groups to demand a new constitution, followed by a fresh presidential election.

In the capital, Harare, police manned roadblocks on most approaches to the city centre and sealed off the central square, blocking the starting-point of a planned march. Riot police were on sidewalks, street corners and at bus and parking lots. Edwina Spicer, a television journalist, was arrested, together with her husband Newton, apparently while filming police deployments.

Zimbabweans collected in small groups for the protests, organised by the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), a coalition of trade unions, professional organisations, student bodies and church groups. But any gatherings were quickly dispersed by police in riot gear, and none of the protesters were able to reach the planned sites of marches to be addressed by NCA leaders.

"We have resorted to guerrilla tactics to try and circumvent the police, said Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the NCA. "We are avoiding forming one large group, as this might result in losses of life,"

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has rejected Mr Mugabe's victory over its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, in last month's presidential election, which was widely condemned as rigged, but yesterday the President ruled out a fresh election. "The next poll will be held in six years ... Let that sink into Britain and its surrogates in the MDC," Mr Mugabe told a meeting of his party's central committee.

Mr Mugabe described the protests as "senseless" on Friday, while the Home Affairs Minister, John Nkomo, issued an order banning them. Hundreds of people were arrested earlier in the week, including about 400 women and children rounded up in the poor suburbs of Harare on Thursday as they were meeting to plan the demonstrations. But the NCA vowed to press ahead, saying it was illegal for the government to ban peaceful protests.

Human rights groups say 10 opposition supporters have died and thousands of government critics and opposition activists have been arrested, beaten and tortured since the election as part of a continuing campaign of harassment and violence against government critics. "It's as if we are being ruled by an occupation force instead of a civilian government," said Professor Elphas Mukonoweshuro of the University of Zimbabwe.

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