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Few Heed Call for Mass Action in Zimbabwe

The first day of the protest coincides with the opening of a new parliament in which President Robert Mugabe's party, armed with a two-thirds majority after the March parliamentary polls, is expected to make sweeping constitutional changes on its own.

There was heightened security in the capital and Harare's roads were chock-a-block with early morning traffic like any normal day. Both private and government schools were open, as were shops and banks.

Commuters, faced with a shortage of buses, were seen perched on trailers of heavy goods vehicles which have become an alternative mode of public transport in recent months in Harare after several buses went off the roads due to crippling fuel shortages.

'Some people are conniving ways and means of making us collapse' Long queues of private mini-buses and other cars were seen at gas stations which were due to receive supplies of diesel.

Police meanwhile mounted checkpoints along main roads leading to the city centre and checked the identity cards of commuters.

Armoured military vehicles were however, seen driving in the direction of the teeming township of Chitungwiza outside Harare which is a traditional hotbed of opposition politics.

A coalition of opposition, labour, students and rights groups has called for people to stay away from work on Thursday and Friday to protest against the urban clean-up drive that has left thousands homeless and destitute, with streetside vendors' kiosks destroyed, and led to the detention of at least 22 000.

The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, which is part of the coalition calling the protest, had said: "We call on all the people to stay at home... to organise themselves and protest against the actions of this regime."

'The clean-up is meant to create a better infrastructure' Mugabe meanwhile justified the clean- up operation and hinted that foreign powers could be behind the protest call.

"Some people are conniving ways and means of making us collapse. We have said we will never collapse, never ever," Mugabe told party lawmakers and foreign diplomats late on Wednesday.

"Ways have been tried, mass actions and all kinds of machinations. We have said we will stand by that which is right," Mugabe said.

Mugabe who has repeatedly accused some Western powers, particularly the United States and former colonial ruler Britain of meddling in his country's affairs, reiterated he would not tolerate any "interference".

"We are a sovereign people of our country," he said.

Mugabe said the urban campaign would improve the lives of Zimbabweans.

"The clean-up operation is meant to remove dirt as well as unhealthy circumstances that might breed illness, but also destroy hives in which thieves and other lawbreakers tend to thrive," he said.

"In fact the clean-up is meant to create a better infrastructure for the ordinary man," he said.

The campaign has drawn widespread criticism at home and internationally, including from the United Nations which accused Harare of "a gross violation of human rights" and of creating a "new kind of apartheid".

Some information for this report provided by Sapa and AFP.