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Zimbabwe's Mugabe offers talks, vows to stop protests

Written by: Staff
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HARARE, Sep 12 (Reuters) President Robert Mugabe's government today said it was ready to talk with Zimbabwean unions over their social grievances, but renewed its vow to stop nationwide street protests planned for tomorrow.

The opposition-allied Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) has called for the demonstrations to protest poor wages, high taxes and workers' lack of access to anti-retroviral drugs to fight HIV/AIDS, which kills an estimated 3,000 people in the southern African nation each week.

While Harare described the demands as reasonable, it said the protests were unnecessary because unions could discuss their issues under an existing Tripartite Negotiating Forum (TNF) that incorporates representatives of government, industry and labour.

The government is not opposed to minimum wage negotiations that take poverty and other factors into consideration, Labour Minister Nicholas Goche said in a statement.

''What it means is that the ZCTU is directing their protest to government over issues that the government is not opposed to,'' he said, accusing the unions of pursuing a ''hidden agenda'' through the protests.

The ZCTU, however, says the TNF has become a useless forum.

In a separate statement, chief police spokesman Assistant Commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena said security authorities had banned tomorrow's planned demonstrations over fears they could turn violent and lead to looting.

Mugabe, accused by critics of plunging Zimbabwe into a deepening political and economic crisis, has long warned that his forces will not hesitate to shoot opponents who take to the streets, a pledge reiterated by police today.

''Any demonstration would be unlawful and the police would treat it as such,'' Bvudzijena said, refusing to provide additional details.

There was no sign today of an unusual deployment of riot police in central Harare despite speculation that the government had deployed many plain-clothes security officers to major towns ahead of the demonstrations.

Political analysts said the ZCTU has been forced to scale down its threats of major anti-government protests over fears that expectations of a heavyhanded response by authorities might keep many protesters at home.

The analysts noted that the unions have quietly scrapped a proposed one-day national strike in favour of two-hour street marches across the southern African nation.

But even a series of small protests this week could keep the focus on Zimbabwe's crisis, which is highlighted by chronic shortages of foreign exchange, fuel and food, skyrocketing unemployment and an inflation rate close to 1,000 percent, the highest in the world.

Mugabe, 82 and in power since Zimbabwe's independence from Britain, has used the police as well as security laws barring unapproved protests to keep opponents of his 26-year-old rule in check.

REUTERS SAM BS1727

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