Zimbabwe protest day flops after crackdown vow

Harare - Shops and offices opened as usual across Zimbabwe on Wednesday despite a planned "shutdown" protest against President Robert Mugabe, who has vowed to end a series of anti-government demonstrations.

Riot police patrolled in the capital Harare and other cities, with minor clashes breaking out in the second city of Bulawayo, AFP reporters witnessed.

Organisers of the planned shutdown blamed the lack of response on intimidation by security forces.

"(Shops) received threats that they would lose their licences if they closed," Hardlife Mudzingwa, spokesperson for the Tajamuka protest group, told AFP.

"We also had a heavy police presence which was intimidating to ordinary members of the public."

In Bulawayo, at least seven people were detained as police broke up a group of about 30 protesters, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights group said.

Zivanai Muzorodzi, a civil society activist in the southeastern town of Masvingo, told AFP that business was slow during the day.

"I think there is fear among the people and they feel safer watching the situation from a distance," he said.

On Saturday, Mugabe vowed to end a surge of protests that has erupted in recent months as Zimbabwe's economic crisis has worsened and the government has struggled to pay its civil servants and military.

Ageing leader

Last week police arrested at least 70 people including Promise Mkwananzi, leader of the Tajamuka campaign, when street protests were held in Harare to demand reform ahead of elections due in 2018.

Police used tear gas to halt the demonstration, which had been authorised by a court.

Mkwananzi was denied bail on Monday, and a court hearing due to decide whether to release the others on bail was adjourned on Wednesday.

Mugabe, 92, has ruled since the country's independence in 1980, and has vowed to stand again as president.

He has previously crushed dissent during his authoritarian rule, but speculation has grown over his succession amid increasing signs of ill health.

"I certainly project that there is going to be bloodshed (and) that the regime is going to respond in more barbaric ways," leading activist Patson Dzamara told AFP ahead of another planned protest on Friday.

"We know in the process lives might be lost - it's part and parcel of the struggle.

"Things are changing, we are seeing Zimbabweans finally managing to stand up and speak out against Mugabe's misrule and leadership failure - this is a watershed moment for Zimbabwe."

This week Human Rights Watch called for the regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) to act over Zimbabwe, where more than 90% of the population is not in formal employment.

"Economically and socially Zimbabwe is on the brink," HRW researcher Dewa Mavhinga said.

"You cannot behave like the ostrich and bury your head in the sand when Zimbabwe is burning.

"There are serious human rights abuses taking place particularly police brutality and excessive use of force."

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