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Riot police block Zimbabwe protest rally

Court defied; dozens arrested

Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, argued with a policeman after riot squads prevented him from holding a rally in Harare yesterday. (DESMOND KWANDE/AFP/Getty Images)

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Zimbabwean riot squads fired teargas and water cannon to drive stone-throwing protesters off the streets of a troubled township in Harare yesterday after preventing the main opposition party from holding a major rally.

The Movement for Democratic Change said police had arrested more than 120 MDC members while blocking the rally, which some government officials said was to mark the start of a foreign-backed challenge to its authority at a time of deepening economic crisis.

Armed police earlier sealed off the sports ground where the rally was to be held and arrested dozens of people, witnesses said, defying a court order to let the meeting go ahead.

The High Court ruled on Saturday that the government must allow the MDC to hold the rally, rejecting the police argument that they needed more time to find the manpower to monitor it.

State media suggested President Robert Mugabe was worried that the MDC wanted to use the event to launch a wave of antigovernment protests.

Political tension is rising amid 80 percent unemployment, nearly 1,600 percent inflation, widespread poverty and food shortages. Many doctors, teachers and university lecturers are striking to press for higher wages.

Mugabe, Zimbabwe's ruler since independence from Britain in 1980, rejects blame for the crisis, saying domestic and Western opponents are sabotaging the economy to try to oust him.

Yesterday journalists saw riot police, some armed with rubber batons, guns, and teargas launchers and some in armored trucks, converging on the Zimbabwe Grounds in the volatile Highfield township, arresting dozens of people who had begun to gather for the rally.

Violence erupted when small groups of MDC members tried to march to the sealed sports ground and youths pelted police foot patrols with stones before being beaten away by officers.

The police also mounted roadblocks in the township, searching cars and questioning motorists.

Harare's state-controlled Sunday Mail said the rally was part of a British-sponsored drive "to galvanize the regime change lobby" and embarrass Mugabe, who turns 83 this week and will celebrate with a huge party on Saturday.

MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said the party had not officially called off the rally, but accepted it could not take place because of the police action.