Zimbabwe constitution reform canvassing postponed indefinitely after weekend violence

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwean lawmakers in charge of a constitutional reform program halted public canvassing Monday after weekend violence disrupted their work, and the prime minister said he suspected the violence was sparked by political operatives.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said his party in the coalition government would not tolerate the coercion and intimidation seen in the weekend unrest, and said he suspected that thugs were hired by some leaders to "beat up people and unleash terror" in Harare.

"Some among us have the misguided audacity to undermine our efforts by hiring thugs to disrupt people's right to express themselves in an important national exercise," he said.

The proposed constitution could limit the tenure of President Robert Mugabe, 86, who has ruled since independence in 1980. It would also strengthen democratic freedoms, free speech and impartial law enforcement, which critics of Mugabe say could threaten his strong grip on power in the southern African nation.

While Tsvangirai did not directly accuse Mugabe, his longtime rival, of interfering, he said: "We know there is one party that wants us to continue using the Lancaster House constitution" adopted at independence that has entrenched Mugabe's powers.

At least five people were injured in clashes and stone-throwing between rival party supporters in one Harare township Sunday. Four other meetings across Harare were abandoned, the lawmakers' panel said. Riot police were posted Monday at sites of the disturbances.

Under a two-year-old coalition agreement between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader, a new constitution must be drawn up before fresh elections can be held, possibly next year.

Tsvangirai said he will review the constitutional outreach program that began its first meetings in Zimbabwe's two main cities, both Tsvangirai strongholds, on Saturday.

"We will not support a constitution that is flawed," he said. "If it means redoing it, we will do it again."

Rowdy youths broke up a meeting in the western Harare township of Mbare on Sunday, injuring five, and attempted to barricade parliament officials in the yard of a community hall there.

Skirmishes broke out in another district when attendees jeered arrivals they did not recognize from their area, alleging they were sent in by bus from Mugabe's rural strongholds to sway the meeting. Fist fights broke out at another venue.

The constitution-writing program has been plagued by chaotic administration, delays, money shortages and accusations of intimidation since it began in July. Officials say about 5,500 meetings have been held countrywide, attended by less than one million of the nation's nearly 5 million voters.

Earlier Monday, witnesses and activists said at least 85 demonstrators were arrested after staging a march to Parliament to demand better policing and public safety.

Activist group Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise said 600 members marched Monday to protest police conduct.

The group accused police of beating suspects in public, harassing street vendors and stealing their goods and routinely demanding bribes.

Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena confirmed the arrests Monday and said the march was conducted without routine police clearance.