Militants of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party on Monday disrupted the first national meeting of civic groups and other stakeholders for constitutional revision, forcing House Speaker Lovemore Moyo to halt his address and suspend proceedings. 

Moyo's remarks were drowned out by ZANU-PF protesters who sang revolutionary songs and chanted slogans, derailing an important step towards the elaboration of a new democratic constitution which has long been sought by civic and political activists.

"This country was won by the gun, not the constitution," shouted members of the group that threw the proceedings into disarray. Tension had been rising even before the meeting as supporters of the three parties in the the unity government formed in February to end a post-election stalemate sang party songs while filing into the conference venue.

Correspondent Irwin Chifera of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe reported that House Speaker Lovemore Moyo of the Movement for Democratic Change formation led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai tried to cool tempers and deliver opening remarks, but was heckled by ZANU-PF activists pelted delegates with water bottles and other objects.

Mr. Tsvangirai's MDC formation charged in a statement issued later that the disruption was organized by ZANU-PF legislators Patrick Zhuwawo, a nephew of Mr. Mugabe and Saviour Kasukuwere, along with self-styled war veteran leader Joseph Chinotimba.

Following the debacle Monday, principals in the troubled unity government convened an urgent meeting and agreed to reschedule the constitutional conference for Tuesday.

Sources said Mr. Mugabe told Mr. Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara that he did not show up for the conference because he was not invited.

Minister of State Gorden Moyo, attached to the office of the prime minister, told reporter Ntungamili Nkomo of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that Mr. Tsvangirai was furious about both Mr. Mugabe's boycott and the conduct of the ZANU-PF militants.

Under the September 2008 power-sharing agreement signed by the three principals, a new constitution is supposed to be in place approximately 18 months after the formation of the government. That would put the deadline in August or September of 2010.

Among those observing Monday's tumultuous stakeholders meeting was attorney Philippa Phillips-Dube, a Zimbabwean based in Philadelphia, who told reporter Jonga Kandemiiri that she sees need for all parties involved to cooperate if the process is to move ahead.

More news from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...