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Chaos Erupts at Zimbabwe Constitution Conference

Tensions threatened to disrupt Zimbabwe's first consitution-writing conference. Many people left the gathering fearing political hostility would lead to violence, but leaders vowed to press ahead with the meeting.

Several thousand people went to the Harare International Conference center for the First All Stakeholders Conference for drafting a new constitution before fresh elections in about two years.

But civil servants organizing registration Sunday were unable to accredit more than 200 delegates of 4,000 invited to attend. Some out-of-town delegates slept overnight outside the conference center to be sure they were accredited before the start of proceedings Monday.

But there were not enough enough personnel, stationery or cameras to cope with the hastily arranged conference. When it became clear registration was impossible before the start of conference, many delegates left the line and walked into the hall.

Tensions began rising in the hall lobby as Movement for Democratic Change supporters began chanting slogans quickly followed by groups loyal to Zanu PF.

A member of the committee organizing the conference, MDC parliament member Douglas Mwunzoro, shouted to those singing and chanting that no party political slogans were allowed. He was ignored.

Zanu PF supporters complained the national flag was not on display nor was the national anthem on the program, and they insisted it be sung.

Scores of veterans of Zimbabwe's 1970s liberation war began singing war songs and shouting slogans at the top table inside the conference hall and drowned out MDC speaker of parliament Lovemore Moyo's opening address. They also hurled empty plastic water bottles, forcing Moyo to leave the podium.

Police eventually stopped the chaos, but many people left saying they feared violence.

A founding MDC member, Trudy Stephenson, said she saw a well-known war veteran inside the hall organizing the singing and dancing that frightened many into leaving. She also said that it appeared some Zanu PF aligned delegates were able to get accreditation more easily than MDC or civil-rights activists.

Many observers at the conference center say the chaos reflected tensions in the five-month-old unity government.

There was no sign of President Robert Mugabe or MDC leader Prime Minister Morgan Tvsangirai, who were due at the opening.

Zimbabweans hope a new charter, replacing a 1979 document adopted before independence from Britain, will strengthen the role of parliament and curtail the president's powers, as well as guaranteeing civil liberties and political and media freedom.