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Zimbabwe Banks Reopen After Christmas But Cash Supplies Remain Tight

Severe cash shortages lessened somewhat in Zimbabwe on as banks reopened after the Christmas break, while there were unconfirmed reports that the central bank would postpone the Dec. 31 expiration of its Z$200,000 notes given the slow distribution of replacement bank notes in denominations up to a maximum of Z$750,000.

Consumers across the country returned to bank queues for cash and many of them received the Z$200,000 notes which Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono said were to lose their value as of Jan. 1 in a move intended to penalize the foreign exchange and commodities dealers he calls the "cash barons" and blames for the crisis.

In Harare, customers of large institutions such as the Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe, Barclays and Zimbank were able to withdraw up to Z$50 million, about US$25.

Correspondent Irwin Chifera said many people were buying groceries with bank cards.

Customers in eastern Mutare were limited to Z$10 million, or about US$5.

Correspondent Loirdham Moyo said civil servants and teachers from the rural areas of Manicaland were still camping on city streets in hopes of obtaining cash.

In Bulawayo, riot police were called in to restore order at a bank as tempers flared and fighting broke out among customers on line. A witness said the incident occurred when someone tried to push ahead of customers who had spent the night outside the bank.

Withdrawals were slowed by the questioning of customers by officials from the central bank, the revenue service and other agencies looking for "cash barons."

An eyewitness speaking on condition of anonymity told reporter Chris Gande that the situation was tense and more violence could occur if conditions did not improve.

From Bulawayo, a bank supervisor said bank notes remain in such short supply that his institution has been dispensing the Z$200,000 bills scheduled for elimination.

Speaking on condition he not be named, the bank official told reporter Brenda Moyo that he did not expect the crisis to be resolved soon.

Meanwhile, the Reserve Bank was offering payment to those who came forward with information on the speculators central bank chief Gono has dubbed the "cash barons" and blames for the cash shortages which his bank's operation appeared to have worsened, making the Christmas holiday a misery for many Zimbabweans.

The RBZ said those who provide information on retailers who charge a premium for cashing a check or making an electronic transfer could obtain a refund of the premium charged. But it said the offer required “acceptable evidence” and was contingent on conviction of the offender. The RBZ said no charges would be pressed against those coming forward with such information, which will be accepted through Jan. 21.

Gono last week threatened to name senior officials in the government and the ruling party, but has yet to do so although police were reported to be hunting for ZANU-PF parliamentarian David Butau, accused of illegally transferring currency abroad.

Employers Confederation of Zimbabwe Executive Director John Mufukare told Jonga Kandemiiri it would be a waste of money for the RBZ to pay whistleblowers given that Gono has publicly claimed to have identified the country's main "cash barons."

Meanwhile, Bulawayo Agenda Director Gordon Moyo said central bank investigations of the hard-currency transactions of nongovernmental organizations such as his own is intended to silence groups which are critical of the government and to scapegoat them for the RBZ's failure to control inflation and manage the money supply.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...