Zimbabwe police crush prayer rally, seize leaders

Harare, Zimbabwe - Zimbabwean riot police arrested the country's top opposition leader and shot a man dead on Sunday as they crushed a prayer rally planned to protest against President Robert Mugabe.

Witnesses said police fought skirmishes with rock-throwing opposition supporters in the Harare township of Highfield, where organisers had tried to hold the rally to address Zimbabwe's deepening political and economic crisis.

Police arrested Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai and other opposition officials after blocking their motor convoy from driving to the rally site.

The party said Tsvangirai and the others were severely assaulted and that one MDC activist had been shot dead.

Political tensions have risen in Zimbabwe as it sinks deeper into its worst economic crisis in decades, with inflation above 1,700 percent, unemployment close to 80 percent and shortages of food, fuel and foreign exchange.

Mugabe, 83, and in power since independence in 1980, dismisses the MDC as a puppet of Zimbabwe's former colonial master Britain.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement: "The United States government condemns the brutal and unwarranted actions of the government of Zimbabwe in attacking its citizens peacefully gathered to exercise their legitimate democratic rights.

"We hold President Robert Mugabe and the government of Zimbabwe accountable for the government's actions today, and for the safety and well-being of those in custody," said McCormack.


Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said in a statement a police patrol had killed a man after being attacked by "MDC thugs" at a shopping mall in the area, and that three police officers had suffered severe injuries.

"The police shot one male adult who appeared to be the leader of the group in the chest. He died on the spot and the group dispersed," said Bvudzijena.

He said another group had burned a military truck and attacked a police patrol while using children as human shields.

MDC national organising secretary Elias Mudzuri said in a statement: "Morgan Tsvangirai, his aides, civic leaders and several senior MDC officials have been arrested, detained without charge and severely assaulted."

In a statement, the opposition Save Zimbabwe Campaign said lawyers were being denied access to the detained and that police had arrested five student activists at a workshop in Harare.

It said riot squads had forced shops, bars and churches to shut down for the day and assaulted patrons in beer halls.

"Highfield has been turned into a war zone," said the group.

Riot police moved in force early on Sunday to head off the rally, saying it would violate a ban on political protests imposed after opposition supporters clashed with police in Highfield last month.

Organisers had said the ban should not apply to a prayer vigil.

Witnesses said later in the day police had fired tear gas at youths who were throwing stones at their patrols, taunting them and defying orders not to move around in large numbers.

Riot police mounted road blocks on major highways into the the township, and were searching vehicles for arms and questioning motorists.

Police on Saturday accused some elements in the MDC of hiring and arming "thugs" to attack officers.

Authorities have tightened the screws on the opposition since violence broke out last month when police broke up a MDC rally despite a court order directing that it should be allowed.