zim sabotage blamed

HARARE - Police in Zimbabwe's city of Mutare have arrested two water meter readers for allegedly inflating meter readings to discredit the government ahead of next month's elections, reports said yesterday.

HARARE - Police in Zimbabwe's city of Mutare have arrested two water meter readers for allegedly inflating meter readings to discredit the government ahead of next month's elections, reports said yesterday.

The state-run Zimbabwe National Water Authority (Zinwa) was forced to issue a public apology on national radio last week after residents of Harare, Mutare and smaller towns received huge water bills for January.

Zinwa blamed meter readers, saying they were trying to discredit the authority of President Robert Mugabe's government ahead of national elections on March 29.

The authority promised "disciplinary action" would be taken against meter readers and encouraged members of the public to report them.

Monthly water bills shot up from around 40 or 50million Zimbabwe dollars (at the official rate) to more than 300million dollars, residents reported.

One woman reported a bill of 1,5billion dollars, equivalent to five months of an average teacher's salary.

The bills were an act of "sabotage", the state-run The Herald reported yesterday.

But the case has been mired in controversy after some bills showed that meter readings had actually gone down. There were suspicions that water charges per kilolitre of usage had been hiked.

Contacted for comment yesterday, a Zinwa official said water charges for 40kilolitres and above currently stood at 7,4million Zimbabwe dollars per kilolitre. Yet water bills for December showed that the price per kilolitre was much less than that at around 500000 Zimbabwe dollars.

Weary Zimbabweans are used to rapidly rising prices: successive visits to a grocery store morning and evening on Tuesday revealed prices had quadrupled during the day.

Inflation reached a record 100580percent in January and there are shortages of fuel, some foods and essential drugs. Mugabe, 84, blames sanctions for Zimbabwe's economic mess. But analysts warn the crisis could prove the longtime president's nemesis in the polls.

For the first time ever, Mugabe faces two strong challengers: the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai and former finance minister Simba Makoni.

The Herald said there were no reports of arrests of meter readers in Harare "so far." The two meter readers in Mutare were arrested last week and had been suspended pending dismissal. - Sapa-AFP

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