Police on Tuesday detained the entire leadership of Zimbabwe's trade union umbrella organization to muzzle protests against worsening economic conditions, union officials said. News of the arrests of all the top leaders of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trades Unions, representing 30 worker organizations with 1 million members, came in a statement expressing "utter shock and dismay" by the trade union congress in neighboring South Africa.
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trades Unions had scheduled a midday march to "remind government and employers that workers are hungry, angry and tired."
The South African statement said that those arrested included the president of the congress, Lovemore Matombo and his secretary-general, Wellington Chibebe.
"Reports we have now is that at least 200 people have been arrested in Harare alone and they are held at the Harare Central Police Station," the statement said.
Ahead of the planned march, police mounted roadblocks on all routes into Harare, stopping any vehicle having more than one passenger. Paramilitaries with dogs, shields and batons were conspicuous on most street corners and in the city's central Unity Square Gardens outside Parliament.
Witnesses said about 10 trades unionists were arrested and swiftly hustled away by police in downtown Harare at lunchtime as they prepared to deliver a petition to the Labor Ministry, demanding new minimum wages, improved conditions, and free treatment for millions of HIV/AIDS sufferers.
Demonstrators included people who had worked as vendors and were by a government campaign to demolish shacks and clamp down on street traders.
Union officials said police swooped overnight on leading activists in several parts of the country and detained them even though the union had notified police of the marches, as required under draconian new security laws.
Nicholas Goche, minister of labor and social welfare, had denounced the protest as "a political gimmick" but stopped short of declaring an outright ban, the AP reports.
For the past five years police have moved without warning to break up any critical demonstrations, with 30 arrests on Saturday when placard-waving lobbyists for a reformed constitution sprinted through downtown Harare, pursued by paramilitary riot squads.
Zimbabwe's economy has been in a tailspin since the government in 2000 began confiscating formerly white-owned farms. This has decimated agricultural production in what used to be southern Africa's breadbasket.