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Zimbabwe arrests protesters on Mugabe birthday

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HARARE, Feb 21 (Reuters) Zimbabwe police today detained 43 women activists as they tried to march on President Robert Mugabe's birthday to press for a new constitution in place of one seen entrenching his rule, an official said.

Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, turned 82 on Tuesday in the shadow of a deepening political and economic crisis his opponents blame on his mismanagement.

Today, police swooped on some 250 members of lobby group National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) as they walked towards parliament in what has become a regular protest attempt in recent years, said NCA chairman Lovemore Madhuku.

''Police arrested about 70 people initially; some were later released but abut 43 women are still in police custody as I speak,'' Madhuku told Reuters.

''It was not a coincidence that they wanted to march on Mugabe's birthday. It was a symbolic gesture by the women to say we want a new constitution,'' Madhuku added.

Police and lawyers for the activists were not immediately reachable for comment.

Mugabe, one of Africa's longest-serving leaders, is struggling with an economic meltdown shown in the highest rate of inflation in the world, soaring unemployment and persistent shortages of food, fuel and foreign currency.

Police have applied physical force and tough security laws over the last four years to scuttle efforts by rights groups to demonstrate against a crisis Mugabe argues is the result of sabotage by local and foreign opponents of his drive to forcibly redistribute white-owned commercial farms among blacks.

Last week police arrested more than 400 people in the country's two main cities, including women with babies strapped to their backs, over an annual Valentine's Day march against rising economic hardships, lawyers and activists said.

REUTERS PDS RAI0117

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