Zimbabweans besiege banks as anarchy takes center stage

HARARE, ZIMBABWE (AP) – Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans lined up at banks, desperate to take out their money after the government raised the limit on daily withdrawals.

New rules went into affect Monday allowing withdrawals of up to 20,000 Zimbabwe dollars (US$35; euro25). The old 1,000 Zimbabwean-dollar limit was barely enough to buy a newspaper.

The limit and the fact that Zimbabwe has the highest inflation rate in the world _ officially at 11 million percent, unofficially much higher _ has meant long lines at banks most days.

But Monday was extraordinary, with lines resembling crowds at a soccer match. Mothers with babies strapped to their backs arrived at bank doors at dawn. Police vainly tried to stop the crowds from blocking traffic _ but there appeared to be more police and uniformed soldiers in the lines than on duty.

President Robert Mugabe, meanwhile, returned from a 10-day trip to the United Nations, greeted by a large crowd of singing, dancing well-wishers at the airport.

Looking fit even at 84, Mugabe waved to the crowd and made a brief statement.

"We will be setting up a government by the end of this week," he promised, warning U.S. ambassador James McGee, an outspoken critic of Mugabe’s, to stop "interfering" in domestic matters.

Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister-designate Morgan Tsvangirai said Saturday that a new power-sharing government must be formed within days to avert a humanitarian crisis.

A power sharing deal signed by Mugabe and his longtime rivals in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change has been stalled during Mugabe’s absence. The two sides have been unable to agree which party would control key Cabinet posts, among them the finance ministry. The stalemate has meant more delay in tackling the country’s worsening economic and humanitarian crisis, with industry and agriculture collapsing and millions threatened by hunger.

Lovemore Matombo, head of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, said if politicians did not take action soon to ease the suffering of workers "we will go onto the streets."

He called for the limit on bank withdrawals to be removed altogether, but central bank officials say that could spark a run on banks that would ultimately worsen the cash shortages.

On Saturday, central bank governor Gideon Gono vowed to keep printing money, a practice critics say has fueled inflation.

Under the power-sharing deal, Mugabe’s party gets 15 Cabinet seats and 16 go to Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition and a smaller breakaway opposition group led by Arthur Mutamabara.

Mugabe remains president and head of the Cabinet but as prime minister Tsvangirai heads a new council of ministers responsible for government policies.

Tsvangirai’s party narrowly won control of parliament in elections in March. He won a presidential vote but not by enough votes to avoid a presidential runoff poll in June. Tsvangirai boycotted the runoff, citing a wave of state-orchestrated violence against his supporters.

Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, blames Western sanctions for the country’s economic collapse. But critics point to his 2000 order that commercial farms be seized from whites. The often-violent seizures disrupted the agriculture-based economy, and much of the land went to Mugabe loyalists instead of the poor blacks he said he wanted to help.