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Riot police break up Zimbabwe protests
December 03, 2008

Baton-wielding riot police broke up protests on Wednesday against the economic and health crises plaguing Zimbabwe as a new 100 million dollar bill was launched in the latest bid to combat runaway inflation.

As the UN's World Health Organisation said a cholera epidemic had now claimed 565 lives, doctors and nurses who tried to deliver a petition against the collapse of the once-envied health system ended up having to run for cover.

And trade unionists who tried to stage a protest against limits on cash withdrawals also found themselves being beaten by the security forces in downtown Harare.

The government meanwhile vowed to punish soldiers who take part in looting, revealing that incidents of unrest in the armed forces had been more widespread than previously acknowledged.

Veteran President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the former British colony since independence in 1980, has previously tried to cushion the public sector from the ravages of an economic meltdown in a country with the world's highest rate of inflation by giving them regular wages rises.

But the health workers who tried to present a protest petition at the health ministry in Harare said they were now struggling to feed their families. Annual inflation was last put at 231 million percent in July, and even that figure is now thought to have been surpassed many times over.

"We are forced to work without basic health institututional needs like drugs, adequate water and sanitation, safe clothing gear, medical equipment and basic support services," they said in the protest letter, signed by Amon Siveregi, chairman of Zimbabwe Doctors' Association.

"Health workers can no longer afford to buy food and other basic goods and services (since) most shops are now selling their commodities in United States dollars and South African rand while the ministry continues to pay us in Zimbabwean dollars."

The health system, once regarded as a model for Africa, has been ravaged by a massive brain drain and shortages of even the most basic drugs and equipment.

The cholera outbreak, which began last month, has added to the strain, with water supplies cut off in Harare.

In its regular update on the toll from the water-borne disease, the WHO said 565 people were known to have died and 12,546 cases had been reported.

The figure represents a jump of 81 fatalities since a bulletin on Tuesday.

While the military top brass has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Mugabe, the army has been embarrassed by pictures of looting involving soldiers on Monday night which have now been published in the government-run Herald newspaper.

Defence Minister Sydney Sekeramayi acknowledged Monday's looting which targeted foreign exchange traders was not an isolated incident and there had in fact been five days of "disturbances".

"During the last five days, Harare experienced disturbances by a few unruly elements from the defence forces," Sekeramayi said.

"As a result, a number of properties were damaged, innocent people injured, money and property stolen," he added.

"Measures are being taken so that this will not happen again. These incidents are being investigated and those culpable would be brought to book."

The rampant inflation rate has led to widespread cash shortages and an increasing number of transactions are only being conducted in US dollars.

The central bank has tried to counter the impact by regularly introducing new currency denominations, including 27 this year alone.

The latest notes will be 100 million, 50 million and 10 million bank bills and the limit on withdrawals has been revised upwards to 50 million Zimbabwe dollars for individuals and 100 million for company account holders.

The move comes less than a month after the central bank introduced one million, 500,000 and 100,000 notes.

Mugabe blames the country's meltdown on a limited package of sanctions imposed by Britain and other Western nations after he allegedly rigged his 2002 re-election.

Talks on forming a new power-sharing government in the aftermath of disputed elections earlier this year have stalled in recent weeks.

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