Zimbabwe demonstrators mob aid project handover

Britain has sent a formal diplomatic complaint to Zimbabwean authorities protesting harassment of a diplomat and attempts by President Robert Mugabe's party supporters to disrupt the handover of a British aid project, officials said Friday.

Witnesses and victims reported another outbreak of political violence in the western Harare township of Mbare that led to more than 80 people to flee their homes where household goods were destroyed or stolen.

Victims told reporters several groups chanted slogans of Mugabe's party as they roamed the township, assaulting residents and storming homes.

Clashes first erupted in the township last month as political tensions mounted before elections planned later this year.

The British Embassy said in a statement that Mugabe's party bussed protesters to a mission hospital in eastern Zimbabwe as the diplomat, second secretary Sarah Bennett, prepared to hand over British-funded hospital equipment.

Demonstrators mobbed local officials and visiting dignitaries, demanding the lifting of Western economic sanctions targeted at Mugabe and his ruling elite. It was "deeply depressing" the project was subjected to party propaganda, the statement said.

No actual violence took place there, but the incident marked a continued surge in political intimidation across Zimbabwe.

It said Bennett was in the remote Mutasa rural district Wednesday to donate mortuary equipment the area had long lacked.

Rowdy demonstrators carried placards describing Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader in a fragile two-year power sharing coalition with Mugabe, as a "puppet" of the West.

British Ambassador Mark Canning said in the statement Britain spent more than $100 million in aid for local communities last year.

He dismissed claims that visa, business and banking sanctions on Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party by Britain and European Union hurt Zimbabweans as a whole.

"Only 1 in 70,000 Zimbabweans are affected by the EU's restrictive measures — because they are targeted at those responsible for human rights abuses and behavior which undermines democracy and good governance," he said.

Fugitives from the Mbare township took refuge Friday at the headquarters of Tsvangirai's party in downtown Harare. They said victims included market stall holders whose goods, foodstuffs and vegetables were strewn into the streets.

On Sunday, human rights activists reported that political violence rose markedly in January ahead of elections even though a date for the vote has not yet been scheduled.

Mob attacks, threats, assaults, questionable arrests by police and at least one shooting were reported in clashes between rival party supporters in Harare and its suburbs.

Zimbabwe's state-run radio has accused the prime minister of trying to spark anti-government uprisings similar to those seen in Tunisia and Egypt.

An independent doctors' group said Thursday it had evidence from witness accounts that at least 70 Mugabe militants were brought by truck to the western Mbare township, the center of new clashes Monday that left nine people injured, three of them hospitalized.

Mobs chanting slogans of Mugabe's party besieged downtown offices of the Tsvangirai-led City Council on Wednesday. No injuries were reported in that unrest.

Tsvangirai entered a coalition with Mugabe after violence-plagued elections in 2008. Mugabe has called for national elections later in 2011 to bring an end to bitter disputes over power sharing in the coalition.