South Africa's president endorses Zimbabwe leader

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — South Africa's president endorsed Zimbabwe's government Tuesday, ignoring reports of human right abuses by the military to crush persistent dissent in the neighboring country.

On a visit to Zimbabwe, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa voiced his strong support of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, repeating calls for an end to Western sanctions and urging the international community to assist the once-prosperous country.

He described the sanctions against Mnangagwa and dozens of other top Zimbabwean officials as "unfair" and "unjust." He promised South Africa will assist Zimbabwe's economic recovery "within our means."

Ramaphosa's comments came as Human Rights Watch issued a report urging him and other southern African leaders to push Zimbabwe's president "to put an end to security force abuses."

Zimbabwe's rights record has been under the international spotlight since the military opened fire on protesters twice. In August the military fired on post-election protesters, killing six people, including some bystanders. A government inquest later ruled that the military had used excessive force.

In January the military again opened fire to put down anti-government protests and at least 12 people were killed, according to human rights groups. After the street protests were quelled, the military carried out a series of raids on residential areas across the country and there were reports of rapes, abductions and arrests of more than 1,000 people.

Mnangagwa has defended the military interventions and said the January unrest had been encouraged by Western countries that have kept decades-old sanctions against scores of top officials. The U.S. last week extended the targeted sanctions, as hopes fade that Mnangagwa would fulfill his promises of reform after taking over from Robert Mugabe in 2017.

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday said that security forces "used excessive lethal force" to put down the protests, based on interviews that it conducted with 45 "victims of abuses."

The international human rights watchdog said it talked to families of people killed, witnesses, activists, medical personnel, lawyers and police officers for its report. The Zimbabwe government has repeatedly dismissed the reports of rape as fabricated, while attributing the other abuses to "fake soldiers," men masquerading as army troops in stolen uniforms.

Human Rights Watch said the crackdown has continued despite the end of the protests. It warned that "the government's failure to address the issues underlying the protests, including the hike in fuel prices, means the situation could deteriorate further."