Zimbabwe president to return home after deadly turmoil

Police patrol in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 20, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 21 January 2019
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Zimbabwe president to return home after deadly turmoil

  • A year of troubles in which his administration failed to improve the collapsed economy, narrowly won a disputed election and violently put down anti-government protests has caused widespread concern

HARARE, Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe’s president announced on Sunday that he will return home and skip the World Economic Forum after a week of turmoil in which activists have said at least a dozen people have been killed in a government crackdown.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa had been under growing pressure to come home from a two-week overseas visit as accounts emerged of abuses by security forces, including dozens of people wounded by gunfire and others hunted down in their homes and severely beaten.
Zimbabwe has seen days of unrest since Mnangagwa made an announcement more than doubling fuel prices that made the struggling country’s gasoline the most expensive in the world.
Mnangagwa in his Twitter post didn’t mention the violence, saying only that he is returning “in light of the economic situation.”
The first priority, he said, “is to get Zimbabwe calm, stable and working again.”
At Davos, he planned to appeal for foreign investment and loans to the southern African nation, but the visit had been expected to be a challenge. His Davos visit a year ago came shortly after he took over from longtime, repressive leader Robert Mugabe, a move cheered by Zimbabweans and the international community.
A year of troubles in which his administration failed to improve the collapsed economy, narrowly won a disputed election and violently put down anti-government protests has caused widespread concern.
Growing frustration over rising inflation, a severe currency crisis and fuel lines that stretch for miles finally snapped after Mnangagwa announced the fuel price increase.
Civic leaders called for Zimbabweans to stay at home for three days in protest. Other people took to the streets. Some looted, in desperation or anger. The military was called in, and with Mnangagwa overseas, the hard-line former military commander and Vice President Constantino Chiwenga was left in charge. A crackdown began.
More than 600 people have been arrested, among them a prominent pastor and activist, Evan Mawarire, who has supported peaceful protests on social media and now faces a possible 20 years in prison on a subversion charge. More than 400 people have been denied bail, said his lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa. She said she will apply for bail at the High Court Monday. She said described the case against Mawarire as a “travesty of justice.”
Mawarire has called it “heartbreaking” to see the new government acting like that of former leader Mugabe, who stepped down under military pressure in late 2017 and was succeeded by former protege Mnangagwa.
In what critics have called an attempt to cover up abuses, the government in the past few days has imposed an Internet shutdown across the country. On Monday, the High Court will hear a case challenging the Internet restrictions. Although access to the Internet is back, social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp are still blocked.
Jacob Mafume, spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, said Mnangagwa’s return “was long overdue, in the first place he was not supposed to travel abroad when the country was burning from the economic and political crisis. ... However, we don’t have confidence that his return will solve anything unless he opens lines of communication. What is needed is political dialogue but Mnangagwa has been avoiding us.”
The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference last week lamented the government’s “intolerant handling of dissent” and its failure to halt economic collapse, concluding that “our country is going through one of the most trying periods in its history.”


How a suicide bomber at one Sri Lankan church turned Easter celebration into ‘hell’

Updated 4 min 47 sec ago
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How a suicide bomber at one Sri Lankan church turned Easter celebration into ‘hell’

  • Priest from St. Sebastian’s parish and man who lost parents in the blast tell Arab News about the carnage
  • Two cabin crew from Saudi Arabian Airlines were among the foreign victims in Sunday’s attacks

DUBAI/COLOMBO: The children would have been gathered in the middle of St. Sebastian’s church with their families during the Easter Sunday morning mass when the bomber detonated his device, killing more than 100 people.

Just months before, on Jan. 20, the church congregation had celebrated its 150th anniversary, the building having recently undergone a major renovation.

But with the flick of a switch, its interior was reduced to rubble, mutilated bodies strewn across the pews and the floor where they had previously knelt to pray.

 “It was supposed to be a day of celebration,” said Dubai-based priest Father Jude Angelo. “Instead, we’re mourning such a terrible loss.”

He is currently the assistant priest at Jebel Ali Church in Dubai, but his home is the Sri Lankan village of Katuwapitiya, where he was a member of St. Sebastian’s parish, the site of the deadliest of Sunday’s attacks, which killed at least 290 and injured more than 500 in churches and hotels across the country.

 “I’ve been told that the bomber detonated his device while standing in the middle of the church,” he said.

 “That’s where most of the children — some very young — and their families would’ve been congregated. I don’t understand the meaning of this attack … I just feel numb.”

Father Angelo found out about the blast via his mobile phone: People sent him images from inside the church.

“I have no words to express what I saw in those images. The church is broken. I saw images of dead bodies … parts of bodies … You couldn’t tell who these people were, their bodies were so badly mutilated,” he said.

The congregation now has to plan for dozens of funerals. The roads leading to St. Sebastian’s are lined with white flags and throngs of crowds despite the heat.

Almost every other home along the lanes have banners hanging outside the walls, announcing deaths of family members. The whole neighborhood is in mourning.

Malith Wimanna was due to fly out for a conference in Malaysia on Monday, and went for mass on Saturday evening instead. His parents attended the Sunday mass, and both lost their lives in the attack.

“I ran to the church as soon as I heard about the attack,” he said. “It was hell. I couldn’t think of anything else. There was nothing to feel, nothing came to mind.”

Wimanna identified both his parents in the debris. He said both had possibly died instantly, and his father was almost unidentifiable.  

The government announced on Monday that the attackers were members of the National Tawheed Jamaat (NTJ), an extremist Muslim group that appeared after the Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009. 

“The Catholics and Christians here are a very peaceful community,” said Father Anton Canisius, one of the many priests present at the funeral of Wimanna’s parents.

When asked about fears of the NTJ’s attacks propelling communal violence, the soft-spoken priest insisted that none of the Sri Lankan Catholic community would retaliate.

“There are people who’ll try to take advantage of these situations and try to make use of this. We’ve asked the government for security and for it to maintain peace,” he said.

Minister of Transport and Highways Kabeer Hashim on Monday announced compensation for those killed and injured in the blasts. He also said the damaged churches will be restored by the state to their original condition.

Easter is a popular time for holidaymakers to visit Sri Lanka from all over the world, and dozens of the victims of Sunday’s attacks were foreign tourists.

Among the foreigners killed were Mohamed Jafar and Hany Osman, cabin crew from Saudi Arabian Airlines, who were in transit at one of the three hotels hit. As of Monday evening their families, who had arrived in Colombo, had not yet finalized burial arrangements, though they were in consultation with the Saudi Embassy in Colombo, currently headed by Ambassador Abdulnasser Al-Harthi.

Tourism Minister John Amaratunga said in a statement that his ministry is working closely with the Foreign Ministry and local diplomatic missions to “ensure formalities with regard to the victims are sorted out as quickly as possible.”

He added: “The government has already offered assistance to all victims, the damaged places of worship as well as the hotels affected by Sunday’s attacks.”

Foreign victims were also from Japan, Australia, France, the US, India, Bangladesh, the UK, China, Turkey, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. They included three of the four children of Danish business tycoon Anders Holch Povlsen, who is the Nordic country’s richest man and a major private landowner in Britain. 

Seventeen foreigners injured in the attacks are also being treated at the Colombo National Hospital as well as a private hospital in Colombo, while others have been treated and discharged.

Many of the tourists were killed in suicide attacks that targeted four hotels. At the Cinnamon Grand Hotel in Colombo, a suicide bomber waited in a queue for the Easter Sunday breakfast buffet before setting off explosives strapped to his back.

 At the capital’s Shangri-La Hotel, Sri Lankan celebrity chef Shantha Mayadunne was enjoying breakfast with her family in the dining room. Her daughter Nisanga had posted a photo of the group on Facebook.

 Minutes later, a massive explosion ripped through the hall, killing several, including the mother and daughter.

 “It is with great sadness that we can confirm that we are aware of a number of casualties among our guests and colleagues. This includes three of our colleagues, who were fatally injured in the course of their duties,” a Shangri-La spokeswoman said in a statement.

 “We will continue to work closely with local authorities and emergency services to provide our fullest assistance and support to all affected parties,” she added.

 “Our hotel remains secured by the military and the police. We have also decided that the hotel will be closed until further notice.”

 The spokeswoman said the hotel is providing alternative accommodation for affected guests, and has set up a dedicated helpline for guests and their loved ones to call: +603 2025 4619.