Zimbabwe's defiant president has threatened to seize foreign businesses in retaliation for Western economic sanctions targeting him and his supporters over alleged human rights abuses in the southern African nation.
President Robert Mugabe made special mention on Wednesday of British-controlled banks and businesses, saying British interests controlled 400 businesses in the former British colony.
"It is time now to take action and to start looking at these companies we must take over," Mugabe told a rally at the start of a campaign to gather two million signatures for a national petition to take over the businesses.
He accused Barclays and the Standard Chartered banks of taking money out of Zimbabwe's economy and using it to support a British banking freeze against Zimbabwean leaders.
He said British firms and other European and American interests also took out profits on mining and other ventures.
"We say no to that," Mugabe said.
He also demanded executives of foreign-owned companies denounce the sanctions placed by their governments.
Trucks and buses carrying Mugabe supporters arrived earlier Wednesday at open field on the edge of the city center. The supporters sang slogans and raised Mugabe's trademark clenched-fist salute. The former opposition party of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, in a shaky coalition with Mugabe, boycotted the gathering.
In a statement, Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change said the measures against Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party resulted from its record of violence, intimidation and vote-rigging.
The statement said Tsvangirai distanced himself from the "unpopular and bloodthirsty" party.
Mugabe insists Western sanctions have destroyed Zimbabwe's economy. Critics and economists, though, blame his violent land distribution program for crippling the country's agriculture industry since 2000.
The sanctions include visa bans and asset freezes on Mugabe and his party leaders. Mugabe has been in power since Zimbabwe's independence in 1980.
On Wednesday, U,S, President Barack Obama extended for one year the Bush era sanctions against individuals closely linked to Mugabe. The sanctions had been scheduled to end March 6.
"While some advances have been made in Zimbabwe, particularly on economic stabilization, since the signing of the power-sharing agreement, the absence of progress on the most fundamental reforms needed to ensure rule of law and democratic governance leaves Zimbabweans vulnerable to ongoing repression and presents a continuing threat to peace and security in the region and the foreign policy of the United States," Obama said in a statement to the U.S. Congress.
"Politically motivated violence and intimidation, and the undermining of the power-sharing agreement by elements of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party, continue to be of grave concern," Obama wrote.
Businesses closed their doors across Harare as some 20,000 Mugabe supporters converged on the rally Wednesday. Many supporters were seen leaving the gathering during Mugabe's rambling 80-minute speech touching on white domination in the nation's colonial-era history and Western opposition to his rule.
"Sanctions were put there to give you pain, and if you feel the pain you will rise against Mugabe," Mugabe said, speaking mainly in the local Shona language.
Witnesses said Mugabe's militants went house-to-house in township suburbs and patrolled bus stops early Wednesday demanding support for the petition.
There were no immediate reports of violence.
Mugabe has called for elections this year to bring an end to a shaky two-year coalition with Tsvangirai.
His party claimed in notices announcing the rally that sanctions were responsible for the collapse of health services and other utilities, and that they affected the care of children and the elderly and were aimed at defending "minority rights" of white farmers and other groups.
"Sanctions do kill. Fight them," the notices said, adding: "Sanctions are a racist attack on an African people. Sanctions are a gross human rights violation. Sanctions are an attack on all Zimbabweans, they are wholesale, they are not personalized or targeted."
Britain, the European Union and the United States have listed some 200 individuals and 30 businesses linked to Mugabe's party as targets of the Western bans.
Wednesday's rally follows a clampdown on dissent and a spike in political violence and intimidation since Mugabe called for elections this year.
Associated Press Writer Gillian Gotora contributed to this report.