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General strike disrupts Zimbabwe

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- A two-day general strike over a massive rise in fuel prices is under way in Zimbabwe, despite a government ban on the action.

Riot police are patrolling townships and police are standing guard at checkpoints, but there have been no reports of violence.

President Robert Mugabe's government had urged workers to ignore the strike. It declared the stoppage illegal and promised protection to workers who ignore it.

Mugabe denounced the strike as a challenge to his authority by unions aligned to the country's main opposition party.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) called the strike in protest at a 70 percent rise in fuel prices imposed by the government on June 12.

Shops, banks, post offices and factories were closed across Zimbabwe. Union leaders said the strike shut down three-quarters of Zimbabwe's economy.

Most shops were closed in the capital, Harare. Only a trickle of workers showed up at factories in the industrial district south of the city centre.

The western city of Bulawayo was almost completely shut down by noon.

Lovemore Matombo, head of the ZCTU, said: "It is going according to plan. By tomorrow, 99 percent of the country will have stopped work.

"We are satisfied most workers are heeding our call to stay indoors to avoid violence."

The Zimbabwe Stock Exchange (ZSE) was, however, open and trading normally, officials said.

Some schools were open and others closed. Teachers at some Harare schools said students had not turned up for classes.

Home Affairs Minister John Nkomo told state radio the strike was irresponsible. "We are asking all people to ignore it because it is political.

"The ZCTU is trying to behave like the government of this country, yet their agenda is very clear."

The ZCTU is a close ally of Zimbabwe's main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has emerged in the past year as Mugabe's most serious challenger since he came to power 21 years ago.

Political tensions remain high after a violent campaign, blamed largely on supporters of Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party, left at least 31 people dead before a general election last year at which the MDC made significant gains.

Union President Lovemore Matombo said the government repeatedly ignored the worsening plight of workers.

"It is they, not us, who have created inflation and large-scale unemployment through mismanagement and corruption," he said.

"We are withdrawing our labour for two days as the only resort we have to make them listen."

The government accused the ZCTU of economic sabotage, and declared the strike illegal. Government offices and schools were ordered to remain open.

"It is not a school holiday and all pupils are supposed to go to school," Education Minister Samuel Mumbengegwi said, according to state radio.

The government had said it would deploy buses to carry people to work and would cancel the licenses of private transport operators supporting the strike.

But few buses of the state-owned Zimbabwe United Omnibus Company were seen carrying commuters on Tuesday. About 30 buses at one of the company's yards were laid up because of a shortage of spare parts.

Meanwhile, a military helicopter crossed above the city centre, and riot police were deployed at township shopping centres to prevent looting.

Police were on special alert and were searching vehicles for weapons or "offensive objects," spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said.

Zimbabwe is suffering its worst economic crisis since independence from British colonial rule in 1980.

Unemployment has exceeded 60 percent and inflation has rocketed to more than 70 percent. An estimated 70 percent of the 12.5 million population live in poverty.


• CIA -- The World Factbook 2000 -- Zimbabwe

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