Police clash with protesters in the capital, cholera spreads

HARARE – The beleaguered Zimbabwe regime's riot police wielding batons broke up protests by union members, doctors and nurses on Wednesday and the death toll from a cholera epidemic rose to 565 in the spiralling crisis, with reports of it spreading to as far as Malawi where a Zimbabwean truck driver has been admitted in Hospital.

Trade unions have called protests over a shortage of increasingly worthless cash while at least 100 health workers protested to demand better pay and conditions at a time they are fighting Zimbabwe’s worst cholera outbreak on record.

Zimbabwe’s once relatively prosperous economy has collapsed and any hope of rescue is on hold while veteran President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai are deadlocked over implementing a power-sharing arrangement.

Riot police with shields and batons broke up a group of about 20 demonstrators marching towards the central bank.

Across town, police dispersed about 100 health workers who had converged outside the health ministry.

Public hospitals have largely shut down due to drug and equipment shortages, as well as frequent strikes by doctors and nurses pressing for better pay. They have been ill-equipped to cope with the cholera outbreak.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Zimbabwe said cholera had killed 565 people and infected over 12,500 Zimbabweans. Hundreds of Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa for treatment, adding to pressure for greater regional involvement to pull Zimbabwe back from total meltdown.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions said it would press ahead with protests despite the heavy police presence. It said almost 50 union members — including ZCTU General Secretary Wellington Chibebe — had been arrested by police.

"Another 10 in Harare were heavily assaulted by the police," the ZCTU said in a statement.

Police were not immediately available for comment.

There was no sign of any immediate impact of new measures announced by the bank to increase cash withdrawal limits and introduce higher value notes. There were still long lines outside banks as shoppers jostled to get cash.

MILITARY WORRIES

The protests follow unprecedented clashes between soldiers and Zimbabweans on Monday as dozens of unarmed soldiers were involved in running battles with mobs and riot police after seizing cash from vendors and illegal foreign currency traders.

Zimbabwe’s Defence Minister Sydney Sekeramayi said measures has been put in place to prevent acts of violence by what state media called "rogue soldiers".

"Let me also emphasise that those who may try to incite some members of the uniformed forces to indulge in illegal activities will be found equally culpable," Sekeramayi was quoted as saying by the state-owned Herald newspaper.

Analysts said the emergence of dissent in Mugabe’s security establishment showed the impact of increased economic instability and may compound the already myriad of problems faced by Mugabe’s government.

"I think they’ve got every cause to be worried completely … if they can’t take the troops with them, they are really in trouble. And if this is a start of some kind of a rebellion by the troops then we could see change in Zimbabwe a lot quicker than it seemed likely a while ago," said Steven Friedman, political analyst at the University of Johannesburg.

The spread of cholera over Zimbabwe’s borders may also force neighbouring countries to take action.

The normally preventable and treatable disease has spread into neighbouring South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana, according to the World Health Organisation.

Health officials said cholera has been detected in the Limpopo River on the border with Zimbabwe and the International Federation of Red Cross said on Wednesday that six people had died of the disease in South Africa with 400 cases reported.

Malawian Health Minister Khumbo Kachali told Reuters that health services had been put on high alert after a Zimbabwean truck driver was admitted to a hospital in the country’s second biggest city Blantyre with the disease.