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Zimbabwe police skirmish with soldiers

A member of the Zimbabwe National Army walks past a looted shop in Harare on Monday. Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Police wielding guns and riot sticks skirmished with unarmed soldiers in Zimbabwe's capital Monday, after frustration over unpaid wages touched off a riot.

Police took away one civilian hit by a bullet.

Trouble began when soldiers attacked money changers and stole cash after being unable to draw their wages at banks. Zimbabwe's dire financial situation has triggered a cash shortage, making it impossible for people to get access to enough money to survive.

Associated Press reporters watched as hundreds of people gathered, some lobbing stones while others cheered. Rioters broke windows in at least two shops, rushed in and grabbed groceries and clothing.

As violence spread through central Harare, two trucks filled with riot police carrying tear gas canisters headed downtown. Men in plainclothes and armed with submachine guns — assumed to be intelligence agents — began arresting soldiers.

The violence was the second time in a week that soldiers attacked money changers amid widespread unease in Zimbabwe. Authorities battling a cholera epidemic cut water supplies because of a shortage of chemicals at treatment plants, fueling emotions further.

No progress on unity talks
Since disputed elections this year, government has been paralyzed while Mugabe and the opposition wrangle over how to share Cabinet posts under a power-sharing deal.

Zimbabwe's opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, called Monday for the African Union to mediate in the crisis, saying attempts by southern African states had failed. Tsvangirai, who was in Senegal for talks with President Abdoulaye Wade, said last week that "no progress" had been made in the latest round of negotiations over forming a unity government.

In another sign of the turmoil, the government rejected a ruling by a regional court that demanded Zimbabwe stop seizing land from white farmers.

The government instead will speed up efforts to take land remaining in whites farmers' hands and redistribute it to black subsistence farmers, lands minister Didymus Mutasa said, according to the state-controlled newspaper, The Herald.

President Robert Mugabe's often-violent land reform has forced thousands of white farmers off prime agricultural land since 2000 and triggered a food crisis from a slump in farm production.

The Southern African Development Community's tribunal ruled Zimbabwe should allow 78 white commercial farmers to keep their farms, which had been targeted for expropriation. The Namibia-based court also said Zimbabwe should pay compensation to three farmers who already lost their land.

The tribunal, set up by 14 countries including Zimbabwe, can hear appeals from citizens but does not have power to enforce its rulings.

Country in turmoil
Zimbabwe once boasted one of Africa's most vibrant economies, with good health care and infrastructure built up after Mugabe won the first democratic elections in 1980. But the economy has collapsed since Mugabe began seizing white farmland in 2000, with runaway hyperinflation, mass unemployment and shortages of most major commodities, including gasoline and food.

Some 5.5 million Zimbabweans — half the population — face imminent starvation due to the food crisis that resulted from Mugabe's land redistribution, the United Nations says.

A cholera epidemic has killed hundreds across the country, and an anthrax outbreak has claimed three lives.

Meanwhile, the country's sewage and water facilities have collapsed, hospitals have closed and garbage has gone uncollected.

The government says cholera has killed 425 people and sickened more than 11,000 since August.

Harare, at the center of the epidemic, was without water Monday, after the state utility ran out of chemicals to treat the supply, The Herald reported.

Anthrax has killed two children and one adult in western Zimbabwe, and is threatening to wipe out at least 60,000 livestock, according to the British charity Save the Children. It said starvation was forcing people to eat infected meat.