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Zimbabwe Opposition, Police Clash In Protest March Over Elections Date

Thousands of supporters of Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change marched through the capital Harare on Wednesday in defiance of a police ban and clashed with security forces as they headed to a court-approved rally.

The opposition faction headed by MDC founder Morgan Tsvangirai called the march a week ago, initially obtaining police clearance which was subsequently withdrawn. The opposition leader and two other senior officials of the opposition formation were arrested at their homes early Wednesday but released a few hours later.

A Harare magistrate declined to lift the police ban on the march protesting Harare's insistence on holding elections in March over the opposition's objections, and plunging living standards in a country beset by hyperinflation and shortages of food, water, electricity, fuel and lately bank notes for the most basic economic activities.

But the magistrate said the Tsvangirai grouping of the divided MDC could hold a rally at the Glamis Arena sports venue near the headquarters of the ruling ZANU-PF party of President Robert Mugabe. But when a group of about 1,500 MDC supporters left MDC headquarters and marched toward the rally venue waving banners and singing they were set upon by riot police who released tear gas and beat many of them.

Scores of opposition activists were reported to have sustained injuries and were treated at the Avenues Clinic on the other side of town.

At the Glamis Arena rally, Tsvangirai denounced the police action saying that it was "ZANU-PF's character to respond to the peaceful expression of the people through violence." He said the opposition would continue to stage such protests.

He said Mr. Mugabe had "failed the test for free and fair elections."

Correspondent Thomas Chiripasi reported from Harare on the day's events.

The march and rally were preceded early in the morning by the arrests of Tsvangirai, party elections secretary Ian Makone and elections director Dennis Murira.

Murira told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that police came to his house at four a.m. to take him into custody.

Political analysts, meanwhile, said Mr. Mugabe's government had failed a key test of its good faith in the crisis resolution process launched by the Southern African Development Community with South African mediation 10 months ago.

Professor John Makumbe of the University of Zimbabwe says Mr. Mugabe has shown no respect for so-called SADC process, and seems likely to step up repression of the opposition in the approach to the March presidential, general and local elections.

Senior Researcher Chris Maroleng of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies said the president has gone off on a tangent, indicating his disregard for the negotiations, which were deadlocked even before Mr. Mugabe rebuffed South African President Thabo Mbeki’s appeal for a compromise on a visit to Harare last week.

Chairman Lovemore Madhuku of the National Constitutional Assembly said that the opposition must simply defy Zimbabwean authorities as it is clear that the government has not budged an inch despite nearly a year of negotiations.

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