Riot police break up Zimbabwe protests as cholera deaths mount

Agence France-Presse

Baton-wielding riot police broke up protests in Harare and detained dozens of unionists on Wednesday, as Zimbabwe's health and economic crises worsened with more than 560 people now killed by a cholera epidemic.

Trade unionists who staged a protest against limits on cash withdrawals from banks were beaten by security forces in central Harare.

Police also dispersed doctors and nurses who tried to hand in a petition complaining at the collapse of the country's health system. The army acknowledged, meanwhile, that unrest involving soldiers this week has been more widespread than reported.

Police arrested more than 70 protesters and unionists across the country including Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) secretary general Wellington Chibebe who was detained while addressing workers, the union said.

"Chibebe, Raymond Majongwe, general secretary of the Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe, and 38 others in Harare have been picked up by the police, while 31 others have been arrested across the country," a ZCTU spokesman said.

Police did not immediately confirm the arrests.

The health workers staged their protest as the World Health Organisation said a cholera epidemic -- which has led to water supplies being cut off in Harare -- has now claimed 565 lives, a jump of 81 since Tuesday. The number of reported cases has risen to 12,546.

The epidemic has piled pressure on a health system ravaged by shortages of even the most basic drugs and equipment and a chronic brain drain as the Zimbabwe crisis has worsened.

"We are forced to work without basic health institututional needs like drugs, adequate water and sanitation, safe clothing gear, medical equipment and basic support services," they said in a protest letter, signed by Amon Siveregi, chairman of Zimbabwe Doctors' Association.

The doctors and nurses said they were struggling to feed their families amid an inflation rate officially estimated at 231 million percent in July.

The government vowed to punish soldiers who took part in looting in Harare on Monday, revealing that armed forces' unrest had been more widespread than previously acknowledged.

While the military top brass has remained loyal to President Robert Mugabe -- who has sought to cushion the public sector from the economic meltdown with regular wage rises -- the army has been embarrassed by pictures of the looting which have now been published in the government-run Herald newspaper.

Defence Minister Sydney Sekeramayi acknowledged the looting and attacks on foreign exchange traders had not been isolated incidents.

"During the last five days, Harare experienced disturbances by a few unruly elements from the defence forces," Sekeramayi said.

"As a result, a number of properties were damaged, innocent people injured, money and property stolen," he added.

"Measures are being taken so that this will not happen again. These incidents are being investigated and those culpable would be brought to book."

The rampant inflation rate has led to widespread cash shortages and many transactions can now only be conducted in US dollars.

The central bank has tried to counter the impact by regularly introducing new currency denominations, 27 this year alone.

The latest notes will be 100 million, 50 million and 10 million bank bills and the limit on withdrawals has been revised upwards to 50 million Zimbabwe dollars for individuals and 100 million for company account holders.

The move comes less than a month after the central bank introduced one million, 500,000 and 100,000 notes.

Mugabe blames the country's meltdown on a limited package of sanctions imposed by Britain and other Western nations which accused him of rigging his re-election in 2002.

Talks on forming a new power-sharing government in the aftermath of disputed elections earlier this year have stalled in recent weeks.