Zimbabwean government to crush any union-led protests

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The Zimbabwe government on Sunday said trade union leaders calling for a national work boycott in April are itching “to start a war” in the country and vowed to sternly deal with them.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the largest umbrella union for workers in the country, at the weekend said it was mobilising workers for a two-day nationwide job boycott in the first week of April over the country’s fast deteriorating economic crisis and worsening conditions for workers.

The union - that has slated its job stayaway for April 3 and 4 and says industrial action would escalate as from April - had given President Robert Mugabe’s government up to February 23 to begin implementing measures to stem an economic meltdown that has made life in the once prosperous southern African nation unbearable.

State Security Minister Didymus Mutasa promised a tough response to any ZCTU-organised protests or work stoppage.

“They (ZCTU) want to start a war and we are more than prepared to deal with them,” said Mutasa, who is also in charge of the government’s chaotic land reforms and is a close confidante of Mugabe.

Mutasa advised ZCTU leaders to learn from previous attempts to organise anti-government protests that have been ruthlessly crushed by soldiers and police, adding the union better heed warnings by the government over the April strike.

About 30 ZCTU leaders and activists were last September severely assaulted and tortured by the police after attempting to organise workers to march in Harare in protest against worsening economic hardships and poverty.

Many of the trade unionists had to be hospitalised for several days to receive treatment for severe injuries during the torture that was condemned by major Western governments, local and international human rights groups.

Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena would not say whether the law enforcement agency would use the same brutal tactics against the ZCTU in April but said the union could not organise any public protest in Harare and surrounding areas where the police have banned political meetings and protests for three months.

The police imposed the ban on public protests and meetings following last week’s running battles in Harare’s Highfield working class suburb with supporters of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change party.

Bvudzijena said: “The police have issued a three-month ban on such activities so it would be illegal for them (ZCTU) to organise protests.”

ZCTU president Lovemore Matombo was not immediately available on Sunday to comment on the government’s threats to stop the April job boycott.

Zimbabwe is on a political knife-edge as a steep economic crisis takes its toll on a population grappling with inflation of nearly 1600 percent, the highest in the world and surging unemployment and poverty.

The tensions have worsened following proposals by Mugabe’s ZANU PF to extend his rule under an election harmonisation plan, which will see a presidential election scheduled next year coinciding with parliamentary polls in 2010.

The opposition and civil groups have condemned the move, saying Zimbabwe cannot afford to have Mugabe in charge for an additional two years. They have threatened to roll out mass protests to block the plan, while a large section within Mugabe’s own ruling ZANU PF party is opposed to extending his tenure.