By Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala
DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete denied any government involvement in the kidnap and torture of Steven Ulimboka, the leader of a medical group coordinating a doctors' strike, and urged doctors to go back to work.
Ulimboka, chairman of the Medical Association of Tanzania, said he was abducted by gunmen last Tuesday, taken to the outskirts of the commercial capital Dar es Salaam and beaten.
"I am aware that the government is also being named in the list of suspects. I am very shocked by these suspicions ... why would the government want to harm Dr. Ulimboka?" Kikwete said in an address on national television late on Sunday.
The previous Friday Ulimboka had called for a nationwide doctors' strike to demand better pay and working conditions, leaving many patients unattended in state hospitals.
The high cost of living in Tanzania has stoked anti-government sentiment, leading to mounting pressure from public sector workers and others.
Kikwete said the government would not triple the salaries of doctors as demanded by their representatives and warned striking medics to return to work or risk being sacked.
Doctors were demanding a starting monthly salary of 3.5 million Tanzanian shillings ($2,200) plus allowances equivalent to 140 percent of the salary, while the government was prepared to offer them a maximum pay of 1.2 million shillings, he said.
"I urge doctors to end the strike and return to work. Your fellow Tanzanians are suffering and losing their lives," he said.
"We can't promise that we can pay them a starting salary of 3.5 million shillings and all those allowances. If we do that, the total starting pay package for a doctor would be 7.7 million shillings. We definitely can't afford this amount."
Kikwete said the strike was illegal, unethical and not in the best interests of the Tanzanian public.
East Africa's second-biggest economy said it was willing to raise salaries of all public sector workers by 15 to 20 percent in the 2012/13 financial year.
The president said doctors' starting salary at 957,700 shillings, was double the average starting salary of other civil servants, and that public sector pay accounted for 48 percent of the government's total spending.
"This level is too huge. A good ratio is to have a wage bill not exceeding 35 percent of the budget so 65 percent of the budget can be used to finance services and other development projects," he said.
Tanzania's inflation rate fell marginally in May, but still remained in double digits - at similar levels to other countries in the region - at 18.2 percent.
($1 = 1572.0000 Tanzanian shillings)
(Editing by Drazen Jorgic and Louise Ireland)