Zimbabwe police arrest opposition leaders

Armed police break up the "Save Zimbabwe" prayer meeting in Harare; participants accused of defying demonstration ban.

Heavily armed police detained top opposition figures, including Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai, as they broke up a planned "Save Zimbabwe" prayer meeting in western Harare, an opposition party aide said Sunday, citing witnesses. Senior opposition party aide Eliphas Mukonoweshuro said witnesses told him that Tsvangirai was roughed up by police as he was taken away. Tsvangerai's lawyer, Harrison Nkomo, was also assaulted when he tried to intervene, the witnesses were quoted as saying. There were unconfirmed reports that one person had been shot dead. Attorney Alec Muchadehama said lawyers were denied access to those arrested and police refused to give details of the police cells across southern Harare where they were being held. Lawyers were seeking an urgent High Court ruling granting them immediate access, he said. Some food was delivered to the main Harare Central cell complex though it was not clear whether it reached at least 20 detainees taken there. Authorities had declared the prayer meeting, organized by an alliance of civic, labor and anti-government groups known as the "Save Zimbabwe Campaign," as illegal and in breach of a three-month ban on demonstrations. Riot and paramilitary police reinforcements, which had been deployed in the township by Friday, sealed off approaches to a sports ground in the Highfield township and fired tear gas near where the prayer meeting was scheduled. Human rights observers in Highfield reported at least 100 arrests Sunday and sporadic skirmishes with police. Political leaders were taken from their cars as they approached the sports ground. They were accused of defying a ban on the meeting, opposition spokesman Maxwell Zimuto told reporters. Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena warned on state television Saturday that police would use "full force" to stop Sunday's prayer meeting. He displayed a factory-made scythe he said was among weapons seized from suspected opposition supporters. "This weapon was to be targeted against police and we view it in a very dark light," he said. Opponents of President Robert Mugabe blame him for acute food shortages, deepening economic woes, record inflation of some 1,600 percent, the highest in the world, and repression and corruption. They have demanded the ouster of Mugabe, 83, Zimbabwe's only ruler since independence in 1980. Fliers for Sunday's prayer meeting proclaimed: "Zimbabwe Will Be Saved." A respected international research organization, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, last week forecast Zimbabwe faced the risk of "sudden major violence" as government opponents become emboldened to take to the streets. Police officials last month imposed a three-month ban on demonstrations after skirmishes with opposition supporters. A squad of 16 police was attacked in the southwestern Harare township of Budiriro. In the past, police routinely dispersed demonstrators with brutal force. The Brussels group noted growing discontent among senior leaders of Mugabe's own ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party could likely also "energize" unrest.