Police in Zimbabwe armed with AK-47 rifles have arrested a prominent activist and pastor, along with scores of others, in a harsh crackdown over protests against dramatic fuel price hikes.
As some hungry Harare residents reported being tear-gassed by police when they ventured out for bread, President Emmerson Mnangagwa denounced what he called “wanton violence and cynical destruction”.
He noted a right to protest and called for calm, saying he understands people’s “pain and frustration”, but he appeared to side with authorities who have blamed the opposition for any unrest.
Pastor Evan Mawarire, who organised what became nationwide anti-government protests in 2016 against mismanagement and then-president Robert Mugabe’s long stay in power, was clutching a Bible when police bundled him into their car.
“They are alleging that he incited violence through Twitter and other forms of social media in the central business district,” Mr Mawarire’s lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa said.
Eighty-two people appeared in court in Harare on charges of public violence.
There were widespread reports of violence as the country faced a third day of protests over what has become the world’s most expensive petrol.
This is Zimbabwe’s worst unrest since deadly post-election violence in August that saw six people killed.
Zimbabwe’s largest telecom company Econet sent text messages to customers saying it had been forced by the government to shut down internet service.
“The matter is beyond our control,” it said.
Service began to return in the evening.
Armed police and soldiers broke up groups of more than five people in Harare, while desperation for food forced some people to venture into the streets, but virtually all shops were closed.
Police fired tear gas after a crowd tried to overrun a shopping centre that opened to sell bread.
Soldiers with AK-47s took charge of the long line.
“This kind of life is unbearable, we have soldiers at fuel queues and now soldiers again are controlling the bread queue,” one man said.
“Are we at war?”
Other arrests were reported, with Nkululeko Sibanda, a spokesman for the main opposition MDC party, saying that “party leadership” had been detained.
“This is only deepening the political crisis in the country,” he said.
As Mr Mnangagwa makes an extended overseas trip that will include a stop at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to plead for more foreign investment, former military commander and vice president Constantino Chiwenga, a hardliner, is in charge at home.
Eight people were killed on Monday when police and military fired on crowds, according to Amnesty International.
But Zimbabwe’s government said three people were killed, including a policeman who was stoned to death by an angry crowd.
The anti-government demonstrations amounted to “terrorism”, information minister Monica Mutsvangwa said on state television.
The protests were “well-co-ordinated” by Zimbabwe’s opposition, she said.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights said it had attended to 107 patients by late on Tuesday afternoon, with injuries including gunshot wounds to the head.
It said most cases were in Harare and Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo.
International concern has been rising over Zimbabwe after a burst of optimism when Mr Mugabe stepped down in late 2017 under military pressure.
The British minister for Africa Harriett Baldwin noted “worrying levels of violence” and urged restraint by Zimbabwe’s security forces.
But South Africa’s foreign ministry said in a statement that “we’re confident measures being taken by the Zimbabwean government will resolve the situation”.
Streets were deserted in Harare on Wednesday.
“Shops closed, schools closed, no public transport, petrol stations closed,” said Human Rights Watch southern Africa director Dewa Mavhinga.
“Food fast running out in homes,” he added.
Zimbabwe’s acting president was “silent”, he said.