Police Ban Rallies in Zimbabwean Capital

The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 21, 2007; 12:49 PM

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Police in Zimbabwe banned demonstrations in parts of the capital of Harare on Wednesday in an effort to crack down on the opposition as the country's autocratic ruler celebrated his 83rd birthday by vowing to stay in power.

Police issued a three-month ban on protests in two districts considered hotbeds of opposition support. The districts include several working-class suburbs and include sporting grounds usually used by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) for rallies.

Police on Sunday arrested and beat up opposition party supporters who planned to demonstrate against deteriorating living conditions and plans by President Robert Mugabe to postpone presidential elections from 2008 to 2010. The government cited looting and destruction of property over the weekend as the reason for the protest ban.

In an interview with state-run television late Tuesday, Mugabe made it clear he did not intend to relax his grip on power.

"If I want to lengthen my term, I can stand next year," he said. "I can stand and then have another six years for that matter and what will the MDC do?"

Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, did not mention the weekend skirmishes in the interview, which was punctuated by birthday messages to the president from Zimbabwean companies and government departments.

The official Herald newspaper published a 16-page supplement Wednesday filled with lavish birthday messages.

Many were from financially struggling concerns such as the state-run power utility ZESA, which is blamed for worsening power cuts in the country, and the national fuel procurement body NOCZIM, which has failed to end six years of fuel shortages.

"You have fought a good fight, good and faithful servant to the people of Zimbabwe," one birthday message read. A message from the police force said Mugabe's "gallant and insightful leadership" would continue to inspire.

The opposition blames Mugabe for Zimbabwe's worsening economic crisis and has been incensed by plans by some in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front to amend the constitution so the presidential term can be extended by two years.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has charged that Mugabe is at "war" with his people, who are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. Annual inflation reached nearly 1,600 percent in January, the highest rate in the world.

In Tuesday's interview, Mugabe chided his interviewer for suggesting Zimbabwe's economy was "sinking," calling that word a "bit too devastating." He then lashed out at top officials he said were jockeying for his position.

"There are no vacancies because I am still there," he said.

Names already being touted as his possible successors are Vice President Joyce Mujuru, whose husband is a powerful ex-army commander; parliamentary speaker John Nkomo; former parliamentary speaker Emmerson Mnangagwa, once regarded as Mugabe's favorite; and Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono.

Mugabe also issued unusually strong criticism of some of his closest associates and ministers, saying there was "far too great a propensity at the moment for accumulating wealth." Some top ruling party politicians are believed to have made vast fortunes out of the illegal mining of diamonds and gold in Zimbabwe, while others have been accused of soliciting bribes and misusing funds.

© 2007 The Associated Press