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Zimbabwe police charge protesters, cholera spreads

HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe riot police broke up protests by doctors, nurses and union members on Wednesday and the death toll from a cholera epidemic blamed on the country’s spiraling crisis jumped to 565.

Trade unions have called protests over a shortage of increasingly worthless cash while at least 100 health workers protested to demand better pay and conditions at a time they are fighting Zimbabwe’s worst cholera outbreak on record.

The once relatively prosperous economy has collapsed and any hope of rescue is on hold while veteran President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai are deadlocked over implementing a power-sharing arrangement.

Riot police with shields and batons broke up a group of about 20 demonstrators marching toward the central bank.

Across town, police dispersed about 100 health workers who had converged outside the Health Ministry.

Public hospitals have largely shut down due to drug and equipment shortages, as well as frequent strikes by doctors and nurses pressing for better pay. They have been ill-equipped to cope with the cholera outbreak.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said cholera had killed 565 people and infected more than 12,500 Zimbabweans. Hundreds of Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa for treatment, adding to pressure for greater regional involvement to pull Zimbabwe back from total meltdown.

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The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions said 69 demonstrators, including General Secretary Wellington Chibebe, were arrested, while nine protesters were beaten and injured by police. Chibebe and more than a dozen others were later released.

Police were not immediately available for comment.

The labor federation, the country’s largest, added that its leadership would meet Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Governor Gideon Gono on Thursday to discuss the cash crunch at banks.

Despite new measures announced by the central bank to issue higher denomination bank notes and increase the availability of money, there were still long lines outside banks as shoppers jostled to get cash.

MILITARY WORRIES

Wednesday’s protests follow unprecedented clashes between soldiers and Zimbabweans on Monday. Dozens of unarmed soldiers were involved in running battles with mobs and riot police after seizing cash from vendors and illegal foreign currency traders.

A cholera patient drinks water inside the male ward of Budiriro Polyclinic in Harare December 1, 2008. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Defense Minister Sydney Sekeramayi said measures has been put in place to prevent acts of violence by what state media called “rogue soldiers.”

“Let me also emphasize that those who may try to incite some members of the uniformed forces to indulge in illegal activities will be found equally culpable,” Sekeramayi was quoted as saying by the state-owned Herald newspaper.

Analysts said the emergence of dissent in Mugabe’s security establishment showed the impact of economic instability and might compound the myriad problems faced by Mugabe’s government.

“I think they’ve got every cause to be worried completely ... if they can’t take the troops with them, they are really in trouble. And if this is a start of some kind of a rebellion by the troops then we could see change in Zimbabwe a lot quicker than it seemed likely a while ago,” said Steven Friedman, political analyst at the University of Johannesburg.

The spread of cholera over Zimbabwe’s borders may also force neighboring countries to take action.

The International Federation of the Red Cross said six people had died in South Africa with 400 cases reported.

“The problem is massive,” Robin Waudo, a Red Cross spokesman in Zimbabwe, told Reuters Television.

Malawian Health Minister Khumbo Kachali told Reuters health services had been put on high alert after a Zimbabwean truck driver was admitted to a hospital there with the disease.

At a reception center in the South African border town of Musina, where cholera victims were being treated, many said there was no water or food in their homeland.

“There is nothing in Zimbabwe,” said one Zimbabwean, who did not want to give his name.

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