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Zimbabwe's General Strike Gets Off to Strong Start - 2003-04-23

Zimbabwe's second general strike in a month got off to a strong start with most shops, offices and factories closed. The strike was called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and supported by the opposition to protest the recent 300 percent increase in the price of fuel.

In the first few hours of the new strike, which is planned for three days, more shops were closed than last month, and the industrial areas of Harare and the nation's second city, Bulawayo, were all but deserted.

The strike was backed by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and reflected the increased pressure on a government facing perhaps its worst political and economic crisis since independence.

Before the strike, police arrested four trade union officials. Details were unavailable from police, whose telephones went unanswered.

In smaller towns, such as Mutare, on the eastern border with Mozambique, about half of all shops and offices are closed. During the last strike, on March 18 and 19, businessmen said only about 20 percent were shut.

Some industrialists say they are continuing to pay striking workers. One employer says the real purpose of the strike is to force the government to change repressive policies and that workers'and employers' views coincided.

The trigger for this strike was a recent trebling in the price of fuel, leaving thousands of workers paying more to travel to and from work than they earn.

The full impact of the price rise has only been felt by commuters, but some economists say one effect would probably be a doubling of the present 228 percent inflation rate. The financial experts say it is impossible to immediately measure the impact of the strike because the economy is already at its lowest level in living memory.

Political analysts say the dramatic rise in the cost of fuel has increased urban anger at President Robert Mugabe's embattled government.

Some skilled and semi-skilled workers at one of the busiest and most profitable vehicle workshops in Zimbabwe said Tuesday they were going on strike because they wanted Mr. Mugabe's government to go.

While shoppers stocked up before the strike, workers at one popular supermarket said they wanted to go on strike because it was the only weapon they had. Women selling fruit and vegetables outside the supermarket said striking was the only way they had left to show their discontent. They said they were so desperate that they no longer feared arrest.

Most government offices and foreign-owned companies had their doors open for business, but it appeared few employees had shown up for work. Those who did said they struggled to find transport.

Well into the first of its three days, the strike appeared to have been peaceful, and there were no immediate reports of the sort of violence that marked last month's two-day strike.