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ZIMBABWE'S annual inflation shot to almost 15 000% last month, almost double the previous month's rate and the worst mark yet in the country's struggle with hyperinflation, according to reports on Friday.

The privately owned weekly Zimbabwe Independent quoted official sources in the state-run Central Statistical Office as saying annual inflation in October reached 14 850%, against September's 7 982%.

The office was promising journalists and economists on Monday that the eagerly awaited monthly figures would be released as they normally are on the 12th of the month, but on Friday would not confirm the Independent's report.

On previous occasions this year when the government embargoed the release of statistics following spectacular rises in inflation, Harare's privately owned newspapers had correctly published the figures.

Monthly inflation from September to October soared to 135%, against a previous high of 102%, the Independent said. Monthly inflation sustained at that rate for a year would produce annual inflation of 2,8-million percent, according to economists.

Also on Thursday, President Robert Mugabe was quoted in the state-controlled daily Herald as saying that "Zimbabwe will not collapse, now or in the future" and blaming "the dark clouds sown by Western destructive forces" for the country's economic demise.

Zimbabwe is in its 10th year of fundamental economic decline, the fastest in recent history in a country not at war, following what the International Monetary Fund confirms is a history of reckless political decisions and economic bungling.

Zimbabwe's inflation is the highest in the world, the currency continues to halve its value each week, now standing at $1 to Z$1,5-million. About four million people are forecast to be hit by famine in the next few months, and needing to be fed by Western aid agencies.

The country was regarded by the World Bank as Africa's brightest hope for broad economic prosperity, but its thriving agricultural-based economy was dealt a critical blow in 2000 when Mugabe, now 83, began the illegal seizure of nearly all the country's highly productive white-owned farm land.

Zimbabwe is now experiencing a critical shortage of cash, with banks on Friday restricting customers to withdrawing Z$10-million and a sudden surge in barter trade using fuel, fuel coupons, even beef or chickens instead of cash.

Supermarkets and shops are critically short of goods following a crackdown in June in which the regime, as a strategy to beat inflation, ordered all businesses to sell their goods at well below what it cost to procure them.

This week, Godwills Masirembwa, the head of the state-run Prices and Incomes Commission, which sets prices and wages -- ignored on pain of a jail sentence of up to two years -- announced that companies had up to November 22 to cut the prices of imported goods.

Imported goods have been steadily replacing locally made goods that disappeared from the market in the wake of the first blitz. The commission has ordered that businessmen will be allowed a range of mark-ups of goods bought abroad and imported for sale in Zimbabwe.

Masirembwa has insisted that the value of the goods be valued in Zimbabwe dollar -- but at the officially fixed exchange rate of $1 to Z$33 000, instead of the far higher semi-legal parallel exchange rate, almost the only source of hard currency businessman have access to for import purchases.

"If they go ahead with that, there will be absolutely nothing on sale because businesses are being asked to give away their goods," said an economist requesting anonymity. "Strengthening the existing price controls will see much bigger shortages and a much bigger spike in inflation."

The Zimbabwe Independent on Friday published pictures of a large dusty, grimy chicken project it said belonged to Masirembwa, and quoted workers as saying that he was selling chickens at three times the official price.

No comment was available from the prices commission. -- Sapa-dpa

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