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Zimbabwe Police Torch Vendors’ Shacks

May 30, 2005

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) _ Police torched six miles of shacks and kiosks in an opposition stronghold near Victoria Falls on Monday during an ongoing operation critics says is aimed at scapegoating street traders for Zimbabwe’s near-emergency economic crisis.

The burnings were just the latest sign of economic chaos in the southern African nation _ once the regional breadbasket. In the last week, the government dramatically boosted staple food prices, devalued its currency by 45 percent and warned 4 million of its people may face famine.

Thousands of street traders have been arrested and their wares seized or destroyed since the crackdown began May 19, and police using torches, sledgehammers and bulldozers have burned and demolished kiosks and homes of the urban poor in shantytowns around the country. The campaign has left thousands sleeping in the open, government opponents say.

The main opposition group Movement for Democratic Change sought a court order Monday to stop the razings and demand compensation for owners of buildings already destroyed.

The government characterizes its action as an urban renewal campaign to clear up cities and crush the black market for scarce staple goods like cornmeal, sugar and gasoline. Mugabe, who has a history of accusing others for his country’s woes, says the unlicensed traders are sabotaging the economy.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has described Zimbabwe as one of the last ``outposts of tyranny,″ accusing President Robert Mugabe of an ongoing campaign of violence against the opposition.

An opposition spokesman used similar language.

``A government that destroys the property of people who are trying to make and honest living is evil,″ MDC spokesman Paul Themba-Nyathi said. ``We call on all Zimbabweans to mobilize against this assault on their dignity, livelihoods and well being. We shall overcome this tyranny.″

Tough new security laws provide a 20-year prison term for anyone trying to ``coerce″ Mugabe’s government and no demonstrations have been reported in connection with the demolitions. But over the weekend, residents in some areas put boulders across a maze of side roads in futile attempts to keep out security forces.

On the outskirts of the resort town of Victoria Falls, along the road to the airport, police burned a six-mile line of kiosks Monday and claimed to have confiscated a large amount of stolen or illegally imported goods.

In northern Harare, police forced more than 2,000 people ``at gunpoint″ to destroy their homes in northern Harare on Sunday and Monday, MDC legislator Trudi Stevenson said. On Friday and Saturday, 7,000 were evicted despite lease agreements issued by Mugabe’s government.

``The people are homeless and sleeping in the open,″ she said. Many were trying to salvage building materials, hoping they would be allocated other plots.

The economy has been sliding since Mugabe introduced his land reform program and confiscated 5,000 white-owned farms for redistribution to blacks, beginning five years ago.

Zimbabwe’s once thriving agricultural sector is destroyed. Prices of staple foods rose substantially Saturday and Mugabe, after predicting a ``bumper″ corn harvest and scorning aid offers, admitted the country urgently needs more than 1.2 million tons of corn to save 4 million Zimbabweans from famine.

Also last week, the government announced a 45 percent devaluation of the Zimbabwean currency against the U.S. dollar, a ban on luxury imports and heavy subsidies for agriculture and exporters. Currently, 80 percent of the work force is unemployed and 4 million of Zimbabwe’s 16 million people have emigrated.

Meanwhile, in the eastern city of Mutare, police said they arrested an American, identified only as Howard Smith Gilman, under media laws for allegedly covering the destruction of 9,000 illegal structures there. Zimbabwe’s media laws make it illegal to operate without a license.

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