Zimbabwe police fire teargas as protests turn violent

Zimbabwe police crack down on protesting public transport drivers

Harare (AFP) - Zimbabwe police on Monday fired teargas and water cannons and beat up protesting public transport drivers, amid rising unrest against economic woes as well as President Robert Mugabe's long rule.

The drivers were striking over police roadblocks they say have fuelled corruption as the economy weakens further with banks running out of cash and widespread food shortages caused by a harsh drought.

The protesters closed roads and burned tyres in the eastern part of the capital Harare, as local youths engaged in running battles against armed police wearing riot gear.

Officers responded with tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowds, and some school children caught up in the violence.

Police also used batons to hit protesters, as angry locals retaliated by throwing stones and rocks, AFP reporters said.

"The Zimbabwe republic police is quite aware that some people would like to engage in social unrest," police spokeswoman Charity Charamba told a news conference.

"Police officers have been heavily deployed to deal with any public disorder.

"The security roadblocks on our roads are there to monitor the situation," she said, adding that at least 30 people had been arrested.

Public dissent against Mugabe's 36-year authoritarian regime is rare and the security forces maintain strict control, but protests have recently surged.

- 'Crisis is worsening' -

Last week hundreds blocked the Beitbridge border post, which links Zimbabwe with its southern neighbour South Africa, to demonstrate against a government ban on importing many basic foodstuffs.

At least 71 people were arrested.

Last month police briefly arrested 15 people, including a journalist and the brother of a missing political activist, during a public protest against Mugabe, who has long been accused of repression and human rights abuses.

In April the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), staged a large rally in Harare demanding that Mugabe step down over the deepening economic troubles.

"The crisis is worsening every day and the deteriorating situation demands nothing less than the resignation of President Robert Mugabe," MDC spokesman Obert Gutu told reporters Monday.

"The situation in the cities, towns and in the villages points to a failed government.

"Zimbabweans are putting this regime on notice."

The southern African country is facing a cash crunch resulting in banks running out of notes, and the government has failed to pay the majority of its workers June salaries.

Without public transport, many residents in Harare were forced to walk to work on Monday, and more protests are scheduled on Wednesday.

Zimbabwe has suffered years of economic decline and mass emigration since Mugabe took power in 1980, when the country won independence from Britain.