Zimbabwe police release nearly 200 arrested opposition supporters

Police in Zimbabwe have released without charge nearly 200 opposition supporters arrested during a weekend raid on their party headquarters.

Police on Saturday stormed the headquarters of the Movement for Democratic Change in the capital, Harare, and arrested 197 activists attending a meeting, many of them from the party's youth wing.

"They've all been released," lawyer Alec Muchadehama said by telephone.

He said the party supporters were released in groups, with the last 41 freed Sunday evening.

"Some of them were alleging they had been assaulted by police," Muchadehama said.

President Robert Mugabes government is tightening the screws on the opposition, fearing a worsening economic crisis could spark an uprising.

Annual inflation is currently running at 3,714 percent and there are critical shortages of fuel, foreign currency and essential drugs.

The MDC, which is widely supported in Harare and other major cities, has blamed the crisis on mismanagement by the 83-year-old president, who has been in power since 1980.

Mugabe says the crisis has been caused by Western sanctions, and insists there is no link with a controversial seven-year program of white land seizures, which has seen agricultural production plummet in what was once a regional breadbasket.

Earlier, a police spokesman said Saturday's arrests were made in connection with a spate of gasoline bomb attacks on supermarkets and police stations in March and April.

But no charges were pressed, the lawyer said.

"Police seem to have been asking them why they were gathered at their party headquarters," he said. "They leveled no allegations against any of them."

The opposition has denied any part in the bomb attacks, which followed the arrest and brutal beatings of MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and dozens of party officials.

Tsvangirai said last week he believed the attacks were the work of Mugabe's feared Central Intelligence Organization.

Meanwhile, authorities have announced intentions to nearly double the size of the 29,000-member police force before next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.

The police aim to recruit another 21,000 officers, Senior Assistant Commissioner Faustino Mazango said in an interview with the official Herald newspaper on Monday.

He said the extra officers were needed "to guarantee a credible election process."

"We have started a massive recruitment exercise so that we have a minimum of 50,000 officers by the time we have elections," Mazango said.

Mugabe has already indicated he intends to stand in the polls, which are slated for early next year. The MDC has threatened to boycott the elections unless significant changes are made to level the electoral playing field.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova