Zim police bar opposition prayer rally

Armed Zimbabwe riot police sealed off a stadium on Sunday to block an opposition prayer meeting that officials have banned, calling it a political protest against President Robert Mugabe.

Teams of police officers, many of them armed with shotguns and tear-gas canisters, patrolled around the stadium in the Harare township of Highfield, where riot police clashed with opposition supporters last month.

Organisers of the prayer meeting, sponsored by a coalition of opposition, church and civic groups, had said they plan to go ahead with the rally despite police warnings on Saturday that it would not be permitted.

But police blocked a convoy of organisers, including opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai, from driving into Highfield and they left the area without speaking to reporters.

Shop owners in the area shuttered their stores and some employed private security guards, while hundreds of people wandered the streets under the gaze of police units.

Police spokesperson Wayne Bvudzijena on Saturday accused some elements in the MDC of hiring and arming ”thugs” to attack police, and warned that security forces would be ”fully deployed” to prevent the prayer rally.

”As far as we are concerned that is a political rally … and we are going to stop that meeting,” he told a news conference, adding that ”genuine Christians” would obey the law and skip the prayer meeting.

Officials imposed a three-month ban on political protests and rallies after last month’s violence, which saw riot police use water cannon and tear gas to break up an MDC rally that state media said was intended to launch street protests against Mugabe’s government.

The country is in the grip of its worst economic crisis in decades, with inflation now above 1 700%, unemployment of close to 80% and regular shortages of food, fuel and foreign exchange.

The MDC says it has been a victim of a ”dirty tricks” campaign by the government in which its officials are accused of violent crimes committed by ruling party youth brigades.

Mugabe (83), in power since independence in 1980, dismisses the MDC as a puppet of Zimbabwe’s former colonial master Britain, which opposes him for seizing white-owned commercial farms to give to blacks.

Political tensions have increased in recent months following moves by Mugabe to extend his tenure by two additional years to 2010, a proposal that political analysts say has caused divisions even within his ruling Zanu-PF party.

Tsvangirai, speaking to foreign reporters in Johannesburg on Friday, said the MDC intended to push for presidential elections as originally scheduled for 2008, calling Mugabe’s proposal both illegal and unconstitutional. — Reuters

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