Protest strike hits Zimbabwe as pressure on Mugabe grows

Harare (AFP) - Riot police patrolled through Zimbabwe's capital Harare on Wednesday as a call for a national strike against President Robert Mugabe's economic policies closed businesses and crippled the public transport system.

The strike follows days of unrest over the government's failure to pay civil servants' salaries, a currency shortage, import restrictions and multiple police road blocks reportedly extorting cash from motorists.

Mugabe's government has delayed pay dates for civil servants as treasury funds run short after years of economic decline, worsened by a severe drought which has hit agriculture.

Zimbabwe spends at least 80 percent of its revenue on state workers' wages, according to officials, while about 90 percent of the population is out of formal employment.

There were few people on the streets of the usually bustling capital after civil society organisations called the strike to pressure Mugabe to tackle the economic crisis.

"I can't go to work when the rest of the country is not going to work," said Sybert Marumo, who works for an electrical shop.

"Life is tough and we need to show the government that we have been stretched to the limit."

Children were seen streaming home from school after teachers failed to turn up.

In the south-eastern town of Masvingo, police dispersed protesters who blocked streets with burning tyres.

Telecommunications, including internet and WhatApp services were erratic, but the authorities denied jamming the services to cripple strike plans.

The strike is the latest in a series of protests against Mugabe’s government as calls mount for the 92-year-old leader, who has been in power since 1980, to step down.

On Monday, police arrested 113 public transport drivers and their supporters protesting against corrupt police roadblocks, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said.

Some of those arrested were injured after police set dogs on them, the lawyers said.

Last Friday around 70 people were arrested in Beitbridge town at the border with southern neighbour South Africa during protests over a ban on imports of basic commodities.

"This is a sign of economic collapse which has left people with nothing more to sacrifice and nothing to lose," said Dumisani Nkomo, spokesman for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition.

"We are heading towards a tipping point as a country, where citizens will express their pain by any means."