Mugabe supporters march in support of price freeze

HARARE, July 6 (Reuters) - Hundreds of President Robert Mugabe’s supporters marched through Zimbabwe’s capital on Friday in support of an official price freeze introduced to curb the world’s highest inflation rate of over 4,500 percent.

The march was planned ahead of a ruling ZANU-PF party meeting to adopt tougher measures against firms defying the freeze, which was introduced last week when the government ordered businesses to put prices back to June 18 levels.

The move, which sparked frenzied buying from shoppers, came after prices of some goods tripled within a week.

Mugabe has accused businesses of raising prices as part of a wider plot by former colonial power Britain to remove him from power. He has warned his government could seize and nationalise companies that do not adhere to the freeze.

Spiralling prices and soaring inflation are part of an eight-year economic crisis that has caused foreign currency, fuel and food shortages. Economists say the price freeze would decimate what remains of Zimbabwe’s struggling industry as manufacturers will not be able to continue to produce goods at a loss.

The government has formed a special unit of police and intelligence operatives to enforce the price freeze, saying this would protect suffering consumers, and has also arrested more than 200 business people, including a ZANU-PF senator, accused of ignoring the ban on price hikes.

On Friday hundreds of Mugabe supporters marched from ZANU-PF’s Harare provincial office to its national headquarters where the veteran leader was to preside over a meeting of the party’s powerful central committee.

Carrying placards and clad in party regalia, the marchers chanted songs extolling Mugabe and denouncing firms for profiteering, temporarily bringing downtown business to a halt.

“Mugabe is right, down with economic saboteurs” read one placard while another said “No to profiteering”. The supporters were expected to be addressed by Mugabe later in the day.

On Friday the central committee was expected to adopt tougher measures to crack down on defiant businesses and extend products covered by the freeze.

The price freeze has been effected on basic goods such as maize meal, sugar, salt, bread, beef, rentals and was on Friday extended to fuel.

On Thursday, the ZANU-PF politiburo discussed measures to further tighten price controls but this would need to be endorsed by the central committee.

The government has set up hotlines encouraging consumers to report cases of overpricing or hoarding but some basic goods have already disappeared from shop shelves.