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Zimbabwe calls U.S. ambassador 'thug' as anti-government protests loom

Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party on Monday called the United States ambassador a "thug" and accused him of funding the opposition ahead of this week's planned anti-government protests that authorities say are meant to overthrow the government.

HARARE, July 27 (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party on Monday called the United States ambassador a "thug" and accused him of funding the opposition ahead of this week's planned anti-government protests that authorities say are meant to overthrow the government.

Without providing evidence, ZANU-PF spokesman Patrick Chinamasa told reporters that U.S. ambassador to Harare, Brian Nichols, was involved in subversive activities to topple President Emmerson Mnangagwa's government.

Chinamasa's comments echo the Robert Mugabe era, where the ZANU-PF government regularly accused the United States and Britain of seeking to dislodge it from power.

"He (Nichols) continues to engage in acts of undermining this republic and if he does so, if he continues engaging in acts of mobilising and funding disturbances, coordinating violence and training insurgents, our leadership will not hesitate to give him marching orders," Chinamasa said.

"Diplomats should not behave like thugs, and Brian Nichols is a thug."

The U.S. embassy in Harare did not immediately respond to Chinamasa's comments.

Political tensions are rising fast in the southern African nation after activists called for demonstrations on July 31 against government corruption, which they blame for deepening the worst economic crisis in more than a decade.

Last month, the government summoned Nichols after a senior White House official said Zimbabwe was among "foreign adversaries" using the civil unrest in the United States following the death of George Floyd to interfere in U.S. affairs.

The U.S., Britain, E.U. embassies and the United Nations have all criticised Zimbabwe for the arrest of journalists and political challengers.

Relations between Zimbabwe and the West were promising when Mnangagwa replaced Mugabe after a coup in 2017, but have soured over the government's human rights record.

Chinamasa urged party supporters to defend themselves from protesters and avoid a repeat of the deadly violence that followed post-elections demonstrations in August 2018 and the January 2019 protests over a steep fuel price hike.

"No, this time no. Use any means at your disposal to defend yourselves," Chinamasa said.

Organisers say this week's protests will be peaceful.

(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

((macdonald.dzirutwe@thomsonreuters.com; +263 4 799 112; Reuters Messaging: macdonald.dzirutwe.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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