Already rising political tension spiked in Harare on Friday as police and alleged youth militia members skirmished in the Zimbabwean capital's streets with supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai.
The MDC faction said it called out supporters to protest the continued collapse of the economy and to demand political reform. Faction spokesman Nelson Chamisa said the feared Central Intelligence Organization was called in to thwart the demonstration, and asserted that security forces were bolstered by "Green Bomber" youth militia.
Observers estimated that the MDC mobilized about 2,000 demonstrators. Information was not readily available on how many protesters were arrested in the melee.
Parliamentarian Willas Madzimure, Harare information secretary for the faction, told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA’s Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that he was manhandled by members of the youth militia who showed total disregard for the presence of police. Madzimure said police who were on hand did not intervene as he was beaten.
Security Minister Didymus Mutasa said he had no knowledge of such a demonstration.
Deputy Youth Minister Saviour Kasukuwere acknowledged being present during the clashes but denied he was directing the youth militia or indeed that any members of the youth militia were involved in the running battles. He said Chamisa and faction Secretary General Tendai Biti had incited their supporters to violence.
Chamisa and Biti denied having incited MDC members to fight.
Elsewhere, the Harare high court was to decide on Saturday whether the Tsvangirai faction can go ahead with the rally it has planned in the Highfield section of the capital on Sunday. Tsvangirai is expected to launch his campaign for the presidency in the election the opposition insists must be held on schedule in 2008. President Robert Mugabe and the ruling party have proposed to postpone the vote to 2010.
Police have refused to give the faction permission to hold the rally, saying they do not have enough officers for crowd control at the event. MDC officials said they were told that many officers have been detached to halt illegal gold panning around the country under an operation code-named Chikorokoza Chapera, or Stop Illegal Mining.
Long reluctant to take to the streets to challenge the government, Zimbabweans have become exasperated by the erosion of living standards by inflation which attained an annual rate of nearly 1,600% in January, causing prices to double monthly.