Zimbabwe arrests overshadow UN talks

Security forces cracked down on opposition MDC supporters attempting to stage a strike. The arrests threatened to eclipse UN talks on closer cooperation with the African Union.


Police in Zimbabwe cracked down on opposition supporters as a general strike fizzled out on Wednesday, while doctors said they had treated more than 150 victims of post-election political violence.

President Robert Mugabe's security forces scaled back their presence in the capital as it became clear the strike had failed, but not before they had arrested 56 people for what they said were public order offences.

"They have arrested a lot of people, more than 50, mostly MDC staff members, including a member of parliament," Nelson Chamisa, a spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, told AFP.

"We don't know for what reason they have been arrested. There is no crime in staying away. The crime is the one being committed by ZEC (the electoral commission) which is withholding the results," Chamisa said.

The MDC had called on its supporters to stay away from work from Tuesday until the outcome of the March 29 presidential election was announced, after its legal bid to force out the results was thrown out by the courts.

With the unemployment rate over 80 percent and even the most basic foodstuffs only available on the black market, few workers could afford to heed the opposition's general strike call.

Anti-riot police were conspicuously absent from the streets on Wednesday, while traffic flowed unhindered by the roadblocks that had dotted the capital on the opening day of the strike.

A torched mini-bus in the capital's Glen View suburb was one of the few visible signs of anything out of the ordinary as workers ignored the call to stay at home, either out of choice, fear or desperation to feed their families.

The scale of the problems facing the country was highlighted by new official inflation figures for February which put the annual rate at almost 165,000 percent, up from 100,000 percent the month before.

Tensions have been steadily mounting in the southern African nation over the delayed result of last month's presidential election.

The opposition said two of its members were killed by Mugabe supporters over the weekend in politically motivated murders, while doctors said they had treated 157 patients who had been beaten and tortured since the poll.

"One third of the patients are women, including a 15-year-old girl who was abducted with her mother from her home, made to lie on her front and beaten on her buttocks," a statement said.

"Her mother, who is pregnant, was similarly beaten. Both mother and daughter required hospital admission."

The group said half of 30 patients still in hospital were from the opposition stronghold of Mudzi, northeast of the capital.

Diplomatic sources told AFP that Mugabe's so-called war veterans and other loyal supporters of his ruling ZANU-PF party had been on the march, targeting certain opposition areas with intimidation and beatings.

In further unrest, a farmers union said more than 130 white farmers had been driven off their land by Mugabe supporters, and around 30 had not able to return to their farms.

The Zimbabwe crisis overshadowed Wednesday's talks in the Security Council on closer security cooperation between the United Nations and the African Union.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon backed by some Western countries urged southern African leaders Wednesday to take "decisive action" to end the Zimbabwe crisis, saying the world body stood ready to help.

Zimbabwe's state media accused former colonial power Britain and the United States of trying to force the Zimbabwe issue onto the UN agenda so they could seek support for military action to oust Mugabe.

"The move is calculated for the UN Security Council to pass a resolution and provide a basis for the US and Britain to use military intervention to topple President Mugabe," the Herald daily said.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai claims he beat 84-year-old Mugabe outright in the presidential battle, but the ruling party says neither man won a clear victory and insists a run-off will be needed.

Tsvangirai had previously ruled out his participation in a second ballot, but back-pedalled from that position on Tuesday, indicating he would compete if international observers were allowed to monitor it.

At an emergency summit in Lusaka at the weekend, regional leaders from the Southern African Development Community offered to send an observer mission, but stopped short of criticising the result delay or the Mugabe regime.

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