The government imposed dramatic price increases for certain staple food products, after a weeklong clampdown on Zimbabwe's street traders and urban poor apparently intended to head off mass protests.
The price hikes -- 51 percent for maize meal and 29 percent for bread -- came a few days ahead of a meeting with UN envoy James Morris, head of the World Food Program, to discuss Zimbabwe's massive food aid requirements despite its long-standing claims it was self-sufficient.
With the economy in free fall and inflation at dizzying levels, the price increases announced on state radio on Saturday will plunge the population further into misery.
Nevertheless, they were accepted with apparent resignation in Harare, where last week residents and police faced off as paramilitary squads torched and bulldozed roadside kiosks, known as tuckshops, and hundreds of slums. Tens of thousands of people were arrested or left homeless in the midwinter cold.
Many observers believed the blitz by authorities was intended to subdue the population and forestall riots such as those that followed price rises in 1998. At least seven people died in the 1998 riots after President Robert Mugabe deployed troops backed by tanks and helicopters in the townships.
"Things are really calm now," said Lovemore Machingedzi, an official of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the capital's southern suburbs, which bore the brunt of the unrest over the past few days.
Machingedzi said the mood was tense among former guerillas, powerful supporters of Mugabe's government who seized nine former white-owned farms around the capital in the last five years and sold off small plots to build settlements.
The government action led to the demolition of prefabricated huts and shacks on two of the nine farms, but none was inhabited by the former guerillas, as the action appeared aimed at the urban poor.
"The situation where they are is very, very tense because they [the former guerillas] thought they could do what they want," Machingedzi said.
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has accused Mugabe of launching what was described as a nationwide "cleanup campaign" to punish the urban poor for voting against his ruling Zanu-PF in March 31 parliamentary elections, and to deter protests as economic catastrophe looms.
His fiercest critic, Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, says Mugabe is using access to food to intimidate rural voters, while the MDC says the plan is to drive the urban poor back to the countryside "where they can be more easily controlled."
At a meeting of his ruling party central committee on Friday, Mugabe publicly backed the crackdown on street traders and shack dwellers, officially code named "Operation Murambatsvina," or "Operation Drive Out Trash."
"Our towns and cities, including the capital, had become havens for illicit and criminal practices which just could not be allowed to go on," he said.
His government has blamed speculators, black market dealers and alleged Western economic sanctions for the current crisis. He promised compensation for those who had "wrongly suffered damage."
Many arrested traders had vending licenses, while those left homeless had official lease agreements for sites developed with World Bank and US aid. One such project was in Harare's northern Hatcliffe area, where opposition legislator Trudi Stevenson said on Saturday that 500 evicted families had been left shivering in winter frosts.
"We need plastic for shelter and some food packs," she said in an appeal.
Zimbabwean relief organizations said the task was "nationwide, too big for them," while the International Committee of the Red Cross "reports they only deal with war situations," she said.
Mugabe appeared at the party meeting despite recent reports in independent newspapers saying the 81-year-old leader was in ill health, including suffering from a serious heart condition.
Zimbabwe's economy has slowly collapsed in the past five years since Mugabe introduced his land reform program and confiscated white-owned farms.
After predicting a "bumper" 2.5 million tonne maize harvest and scorning aid offers prior to parliamentary elections March 31, Mugabe now admits the country urgently needs more than 1.2 million tonnes to save 4 million Zimbabweans -- out of the population of 11.6 million -- from famine.
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