Political tension in Zimbabwe ran high Monday after a weekend of confrontations and at times clashes between authorities and both factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which pledged to keep up their pressure on the government.
Riot police wielding batons and water cannon turned out in force on Sunday in Harare to block a proposed rally by the MDC faction of party founder Morgan Tsvangirai, who intended to announce his candidacy for president in the election due next year. The ruling ZANU-PF party has suggested postponing that election until 2010.
On Saturday, police in Bulawayo blocked a meeting called by the MDC faction headed by Arthur Mutambara to announce a campaign of "defiance" against the government of President Robert Mugabe, who will turn 83 on Wednesday. Mutambara faction officials said police beat supporters who had shown up for the meeting.
On Monday, Tsvangirai issued a statement citing a “growing mood of defiance” among the Zimbabwean people amidst economic collapse with inflation near 1,600%. He said President Mugabe had become dependent on a partisan security apparatus and what he termed a "rogue" youth militia to maintain his grip on power.
The former trade unionist gave no signs of backing down from the confrontation, saying “we must express ourselves out of the crisis through action.”
He dismissed Harare's calls for a social contract to mollify workers, saying that the real solution is a new constitution and a presidential ballot as scheduled in 2008.
Tsvangirai spokesman Nelson Chamisa told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA’s Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that police who ignored a high court ruling asserting the faction's right to hold the rally in the Highfield section of Harare were to blame for the violence.
Police established a massive presence in the populous Highfield section of Harare on Sunday morning to prevent Tsvangirai's faction from holding the planned rally.
Witnesses reported mayhem as police released tear gas and turned water cannon not only on MDC supporters hoping to gain access to the Zimbabwe Grounds, a sporting venue, but also on Highfield residents going about their business.
Correspondent Ben Chaleka reported from Highfield that armed riot policemen and youths militia Monday continued patrolling the streets of the traumatized suburb.
Reports differed as to how many people were arrested. Police said a total of 40 were arrested on Friday, when the MDC staged a protest in the city center, and on Sunday. But MDC officials said authorities had arrested and were holding some 120.
Meanwhile, two members of parliament of the Tsvangirai faction who were arrested on Friday on charges they assaulted or incited the assault of police during a protest remained in police hands and were not presented for arraignment Monday.
Lawyers for Tendai Biti and Paul Madzore expressed concern that the two had been in custody beyond the 48 hours legally allowed without arraignment. Correspondent Irwin Chifera reported that prosecutors had asked police for more evidence.
In Bulawayo, meanwhile, the Mutambara faction of the opposition condemned what it said was a move by the Mugabe government to ban all political meetings.
Reporter Netsai Mlilo said members of the riot police intervened on Saturday to block the launch of what the Mutambara faction called its "defiance campaign."