Zimbabwe on edge as opposition challenges protest ban
HARARE, Aug 16 (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's main opposition MDC has gone to court to lift a police ban on its demonstrations, an official said on Friday, as armed police and soldiers set up checkpoints on major roads and blocked access to the party's offices in central Harare.
The police banned the street demonstration planned by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) on Thursday night, after saying it would turn violent, and warned that anyone who took part would be committing a crime.
The protests come at a time the government is struggling to convince weary Zimbabweans that its austerity measures and reforms will revive the economy.
They are seen as a test of how the government reacts to dissent, following a violent security crackdown against fuel demonstrations in January.
The opposition was determined to continue with the demonstrations, said MDC spokesman Daniel Molokele, adding that a High Court judge would preside over the party's application from 7 a.m. (0500 GMT).
"The people of Zimbabwe must rest assured that no stone will be left unturned to make sure that no one stops the people's free Zimbabwe march from going ahead today," Molokele said in a statement.
Reuters witnesses saw police and armed soldiers searching buses, taxis and private vehicles at checkpoints and randomly asking for identity documents. Traffic was unusually thin on major roads into Harare.
In central Harare, anti-riot police blocked the roads to the MDC headquarters and occupied a square where opposition supporters were set to gather before the beginning of the march.
The MDC, which disputes President Emmerson Mnangagwa's presidential election win last year, called the protest against the government's handling of the economy, which is mired in its worst crisis in a decade.
Zimbabweans had expected last year's vote to usher in a new dawn of economic recovery, expanded political rights and an end to the country's international pariah status, but instead, the elections left the country more polarised.
Mnangagwa's promise to turn around the economy has yet to materialise. Instead, Zimbabweans are enduring shortages of U.S. dollars, fuel, bread and rolling power cuts.
Wages and pensions have been eroded by double-digit inflation, bringing back bad memories of the hyperinflation of a decade ago, which forced the country to ditch its currency.
Ahead of Friday's demonstrations, a coalition of rights groups said six Zimbabwean political activists were abducted from their homes at night and beaten by armed men this week.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Additional reporting by Tonderai Gonorenda and Philemon Bulawayo; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)