Police beat women protesting for peace deal

HARARE – Police used sticks to beat women in southern Zimbabwe who were urging politicians to resolve their differences and turn their attention to their suffering people, organisers of Thursday's demonstration said.

The police could not be reached for comment. While the demonstrators rallied in the city of Bulawayo, President Robert Mugabe and his chief political rivals were in their third day of talks aimed at saving a power-sharing deal signed a month ago. The opposition says the deal is threatened by Mugabe’s insistence on keeping the most powerful Cabinet posts.

The stalemate over Cabinet posts has left Zimbabwe rudderless as its economy deteriorates. Inflation is 231-million percent and food, medicine and most other basic goods are scarce. The UN estimates 45% of Zimbabwe’s population, or 5,1-million people, will need food help by early 2009.

The Bulawayo demonstrators were carrying a statement from the civil rights group Women of Zimbabwe Arise, accusing politicians of offering empty promises in their September 15 agreement.

"How many more Zimbabweans must die before you act?" the statement said. "This is a national disaster and we demand food for all Zimbabweans now."

The group said in a later statement that as about 200 of its members sat outside local government offices waiting for officials to come and hear their demands, riot police arrived and arrested two of its leaders, Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, and dispersed the other protesters by beating them with sticks. The women’s group said at least one protester required medical attention.

Repeated attempts to reach the national police spokesperson for comment were unsuccessful.

Police regularly crack down on protests by this and other groups critical of the government. Williams and Mahlangu were jailed for five weeks earlier this year after being arrested during a peaceful protest in the Zimbabwean capital.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki has been mediating discussions with Mugabe, main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, and Arthur Mutumbara, leader of a smaller opposition faction.

An article on Thursday in the government mouthpiece Herald, quoted an unidentified official from Mugabe’s party as saying compromises could be made that would change the Cabinet line-up Mugabe unilaterally announced last week.

Mugabe had claimed the most powerful Cabinet posts for his own party, including the ministries in charge of finance and police. The opposition denounced the move and threatened to abandon talks on forming a unity government after disputed elections.

During a break in Thursday’s talks, Welshman Ncube, a negotiator for Mutumbara, said negotiators had reached a compromise on the finance and police ministries. He would not describe the compromise, but said the deal could be complete later on Thursday. – Sapa-AP