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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 September 2006, 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK
Zimbabwe police hold union chief
Wellington Chibebe (photo: Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition)
Wellington Chibebe is being held in a Harare police station

Zimbabwe's main trade union leader has been arrested by police in the capital for holding a demonstration which the government had earlier banned.

Wellington Chibebe told the BBC he was beaten with batons and rifle butts as the police arrested him and 15 others.

Security forces put up roadblocks sealing off the capital, Harare, and are out in force in other major towns.

The unions have now abandoned protests over the country's economic crisis.

A spokesman for Zimbabwe's Congress of Trade Unions, Mlamleni Sibanda, said the strikes and demonstrations had been halted because of the way the police had reacted.

There were also reports of arrests in other towns and cities, with a large police presence on the streets.

The ZCTU was demonstrating against an inflation rate of 1,000% and demanding higher incomes, lower taxes and more medicines to fight HIV/Aids.

Speaking by telephone from police custody, Mr Chibebe told the BBC that the police moved in as some 1,500 workers gathered to begin their protest.

"I'm saying, we've been arrested when we started our demo. We've been badly beaten."

Another ZCTU leader, Lovemore Matombo, also said he was arrested and beaten.

Warnings

The ZCTU called for demonstrations in 34 towns and cities across Zimbabwe.

But there were predictions of a low turnout, with the threat of a violent crackdown and mass arrests putting many off - as well as the prospect of forfeiting a day's income.

ZIMBABWE CRISIS
graph
Life expectancy 30 years
High dependency on food aid
20% adult HIV prevalence
Shortages of basic foodstuffs
High unemployment
Inflation 1,000%

The union action was backed by church groups and the main opposition party - the Movement for Democratic Change.

On Monday, dozens of women were arrested in the capital by police for protesting at a lack of municipal services.

Earlier, police spokesman Wayne Bzudzijena had warned that they would be out in full force to maintain peace and order.

Under Zimbabwean laws, public demonstrations require police clearance and unauthorised gatherings are frequently broken up.

"Those who want to go about their normal, legitimate business in town can do so without fear," he told AFP news agency.

But ZCTU secretary general Mr Chibebe had said they would not be deterred by police threats.

"Are we not already being crushed by hunger and poverty?" he said.

Zimbabwe's economy has been in sharp decline for more than six years.




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