MDC rally stopped

Johannesburg – Zimbabwean police called off an opposition rally in their capital on Sunday, prompting accusations of political interference on the eve of a regional summit on the southern African nation's political crisis.

Opposition spokesperson Nelson Chamisa said leaders of his Movement for Democratic Change had organised the rally to update members on their position headed into the talks, set to take place in South Africa on Monday.

Regional leaders were expected to press Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai to form a coalition government, as they agreed to do in September.

The MDC refuses to govern with Mugabe until a fair distribution of Cabinet and other government posts is worked out and harassment of dissidents ends. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and leaders of neighbouring countries have urged the opposition to form the government first, and work out differences later.

In an interview on Sunday, chief opposition spokesperson Tendai Biti said the banning of Sunday’s rally was evidence that Zanu-PF held his party in "total contempt". Biti, in South Africa for Monday’s talks, said Zanu-PF’s attitude left little reason to hope the summit would produce a breakthrough.

The Mugabe government’s position was laid out on Sunday in an editorial in the state-owned Mail newspaper, which accused the opposition of being "intransigent".

Human rights activists say Mugabe’s government has stepped up its crackdown on free speech and dissent in recent weeks.

But a police spokesperson says Sunday’s rally was banned because of the danger of violence among opposition factions. Chamisa, the opposition spokesperson, dismissed that as "ridiculous? and said police were acting on Zanu-PF orders.

"I don’t know where the excuses they are giving are coming from," Chamisa said.

The political stalemate has distracted leaders from addressing a growing economic and humanitarian crisis, with millions of Zimbabweans dependent on international aid groups for food and medical care. The government has been unable to maintain its medical and sanitation infrastructure, leading to a cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 3 000 people and spread to neighbouring countries.

Biti, the chief opposition spokesperson, said the opposition was prepared to compromise, but had already given up significant ground – including accepting that Tsvangirai would not be president. He repeated opposition calls on Mugabe’s fellow African leaders to deal with him more decisively.

Neighbouring leaders have hinted they are losing patience with Mugabe, and a logical next step would be to move the discussion to a larger African forum. The African Union has a summit in Ethiopia at the beginning of February, and Zimbabwean activists are already gathering in Addis Ababa. – AP