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General Strike Begins in Zimbabwe - 2002-03-20

A general strike has begun in Zimbabwe to protest alleged government abuses during the recent presidential election, one day after the Commonwealth suspended the country from the 54-nation organization.

Observers in the capital, Harare, say civil services are functioning normally, but activity in the city has been noticeably reduced.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions called the three-day strike, which the government declared illegal.

International observers and Western countries condemned the election, saying President Robert Mugabe stole the vote amid massive fraud and intimidation of the opposition by his followers.

On Tuesday, leaders from Australia, Nigeria and South Africa decided to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth for 12 months. The three nations made up a special Commonwealth task force charged with recommending a course of action against Zimbabwe after the election was called unfair. The suspension will be reviewed after a year.

Following the decision, Australian Prime Minister John Howard suggested that holding a new election in Zimbabwe as soon as possible might be a good idea.

Mr. Howard also appealed for the international community to help Zimbabwe overcome a food shortage, revive its economy and achieve political stability. Zimbabwe's state television says Information Minister Jonathan Moyo denounced the Commonwealth decision as "opinionated and one-sided."

The British government and Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change have welcomed the move. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, President Mugabe's opponent in the election, also has called for a new vote. He has rejected a call to hold talks with Mr. Mugabe's government.

Switzerland imposed sanctions on Mr. Mugabe's inner circle by freezing any financial assets the president and his senior aides might have there. The Swiss government cited manipulation of the presidential election.

Some information for this report provided by AFP and Reuters.