HARARE, Zimbabwe - Riot police charged into a group of doctors and nurses protesting Zimbabwe's deepening economic and health crisis, eyewitnesses said yesterday as deaths rose sharply from a cholera epidemic blamed on collapsing infrastructure.
The witnesses said officers in downtown Harare ran into a march of doctors and nurses - some in uniform - who fled the police charge. A few blocks away, police stopped teachers trying to join the protest, and police trucks took at least six people away, said the witnesses, who declined to give their names for fear of official retribution.
Armed with rifles, men in the blue uniforms of paramilitary police were positioned atop several high-rise bank headquarters yesterday.
Zimbabwe's state newspaper quoted Defense Minister Sydney Sekeramayi as saying rogue elements in the country were trying to incite violence against the government.
On Monday, soldiers went on a rampage after they were unable to withdraw wages from banks, which have been short of cash because of Zimbabwe's economic meltdown.
The coincidence of that action and the call for protests by unions and civil-rights organizations "raises a lot of questions," Sekeramayi said, adding that no unlawful demonstrations would be tolerated.
The United Nations said deaths from the cholera epidemic had risen to 565, with 12,546 people infected. The government had been reporting 473 cholera deaths since August, and 11,700 people infected as of Monday.
The nationwide outbreak of the waterborne disease is blamed on collapsing water-treatment plants and broken sewage pipes.
Zimbabwe has been paralyzed since disputed elections in March. President Robert Mugabe and the opposition are wrangling over a power-sharing deal.
The country is suffering from the world's highest inflation, and Zimbabweans face daily shortages of food and other basic goods. Many hospitals and clinics have shut their doors because of a lack of drugs and medicine.