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Zimbabweans stage mass protest against Western sanctions

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Harare (AFP)

Zimbabweans staged a mass government-orchestrated protest on Friday against sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union during the despotic rule of late ex-leader Robert Mugabe.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been battling to re-engage with the West since Mugabe was ousted by the military in November 2017.

His administration organised the demonstration in Zimbabwe's capital Harare, demanding the lifting of sanctions that have weighed down the country for more than two decades.

Thousands of people gathered for the event -- which was declared a national holiday -- waving posters and banners as they marched towards the national sports stadium.

Some rode on top of buses, chanting slogans.

"Sanctions are a crime against humanity," read one banner.

"ZIDERA must go," said another, referring to sanctions imposed by the United States in 2001, at the height of land reforms that saw hundreds of white-owned farms violently seized.

Tensions escalated further when the Mugabe regime kicked out European Union observers and cracked down on opposition party members ahead of a presidential vote in 2002.

The sanctions were aimed at high-ranking officials and government institutions, including travel bans on Mugabe and his inner circle.

US President Donald Trump extended the penalties in March to more than 100 individuals and entities, Mnangagwa included.

- 'Immeasurable impact' -

On Friday, the president and his wife Auxilia paraded through the streets of Harare, escorted by a brass band playing religious and political songs.

"We know very well that the sanctions are neither smart nor targeted," he said in an address to the crowds at the stadium.

"Their impact on our daily lives is immeasurable and the consequences are dire."

Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa told reporters that Zimbabwe had been "ostracised" by investors.

Zimbabwe's economy has been in tatters since Mugabe brought in a series of misguided policies that brought a once-thriving agricultural industry to its knees.

Hyperinflation has rendered most goods unaffordable and basics such as fuel and medicine are scarce.

The downturn only worsened under Mnangagwa, who has pledged to revive the economy and attract investment.

But the cash-strapped government still found resources to bus hundreds of people in from rural areas to take part in Friday's protest.

Public universities were also asked to send 500 students per faculty to march.

At the stadium, participants were each handed a box of chicken and chips.

- 'Hinder progress' -

Zimbabwe's southern African neighbours also voiced their support and called for the sanctions to be lifted.

"Mnangagwa has made significant efforts... to revamp the economy of Zimbabwe," Zambian President Edgar Lungu said in a statement on Thursday.

"The continuous restrictive sanctions hinder the country from making significant progress."

A handful of anti-sanctions marches were also organised in South Africa, where thousands of Zimbabweans have sought better living prospects.

"We do this because the sanctions on Zimbabwe affect the region and South Africa in particular," said Jacob Khawe, a regional representative of South Africa's ruling African National Congress party.

"Zimbabweans have been converted into homeless people by these sanctions. They run all over the world trying to find survival," Khawe told reporters at a protest outside the US embassy on Friday.

Both the US and the EU have defended their stance.

"The biggest sanctions on Zimbabwe are the limitations it puts on itself," tweeted the US ambassador to Harare, Brian Nichols. "That should be the focus of the government."

The EU embassy said it had only imposed an arms embargo, a travel and asset freeze against Mugabe and his wife, and a ban on doing business with Zimbabwean defence companies.

The US embassy also blasted Zimbabwe's government for corruption and alleged embezzlement.

"Not the way to build confidence in Zim & attract foreign business & investment," it said on Twitter.

Mnangagwa has come under fire since January, when at least 17 people were killed and scores wounded after the army brutally broke up a protest against rising fuel prices.

The army also used force to control a demonstration by unarmed civilians protesting a delay in the announcement of vote results last year. Six people died and dozens were injured.

Amnesty International and several other rights groups have accused Mnangagwa of human rights abuses.

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