The leader of the opposition in Zanzibar was arrested Tuesday as tensions soared on the islands ahead of Tanzania's election, with his party claiming nine people were killed, which police denied.
Mainland Tanzania holds presidential and parliamentary elections on Wednesday, as does semi-autonomous Zanzibar, which votes for Tanzania's president as well as its own leader and lawmakers.
The Indian Ocean islands, best known as a paradise holiday destination with white, palm-fringed beaches, have a history of violent, contested polls, and the streets -- devoid of tourists as a result of the coronavirus pandemic -- swarmed with heavily armed security forces.
Opposition leader Seif Sharif Hamad, who is taking his sixth shot at the top office, was hauled away by police as he arrived at a polling station to try and cast his ballot on a day of early voting set aside mainly for security forces, his party said.
The arrest came after a night of violence on Zanzibar's second-largest island of Pemba, an opposition bastion, where ACT-Wazalendo (Alliance for Change and Transparency) spokesman Abeid Khamis Bakar told AFP nine people had been shot dead by police overnight.
Tanzanian police chief Simon Sirro told journalists in Dar es Salaam that 42 people had been arrested in Pemba, but there had been "no death and I don't expect any death during these elections".
The toll could not be independently confirmed, however a relative of a woman who was shot dead told AFP "armed men carrying guns" had opened fire on him and others.
"It was around 9pm at night, we were seated outside a shop. But armed men carrying guns... just pointed and fired. I escaped safely but later found that three", including his relative, had been shot dead.
"We have already buried the dead bodies," he said, adding 18 others had been injured.
The opposition believes the special day of early voting for security forces is a ploy to steal the election, and urged supporters to go out and vote on the same day.
The violence on Pemba erupted as the army distributed ballots which opposition supporters believed were pre-marked.
The national stadium, where the swearing in of the new president is to take place, has already been freshly painted in the bright yellow and green of the ruling party, whose candidate is Hussein Ali Hassan Mwinyi, son of former Tanzanian president Ali Hassan Mwinyi.
Teargas and live bullets
Shortly before Hamad's arrest on the main island, police fired teargas and live rounds, while a group of about six brutally beat a young man around the Mtupepo primary school where the polling station is located in an opposition stronghold, an AFP reporter saw.
Journalists were chased away from the scene.
The area was later completely sealed off by security forces, along with other roads around Zanzibar, where the occasional pop of teargas being fired could be heard.
Trucks loaded with soldiers, police and a militia linked to the ruling party known as "zombies" -- clad in black with their faces covered by bandanas -- whizzed throughout the city.
AFP reporters witnessed the security forces beating several other civilians in different parts of town before loading them into their trucks.
A medical source, who asked not to reveal his name or place of work for fear of reprisal, confirmed four people had received "blunt force trauma" wounds from police on the main island Tuesday, one of whom had machete wounds to his back.
'Violence, deaths and detentions'
The violence in Zanzibar comes amid rising fears over Tanzania's election after five years of crackdown on the opposition and free speech under President John Magufuli, who is running for a second term.
"I'm alarmed by reports from Zanzibar and elsewhere of violence, deaths, and detentions," United States ambassador Donald Wright wrote on Twitter.
Sectarian and political tensions in Zanzibar -- with a cosmopolitan population of Arabs, Asians and Africans -- are more marked than on the mainland.
Hamad, whose party seeks full independence, believes every vote has been stolen from him since the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1995, and foreign observers have often agreed.
In January 2001, at least 30 people were killed in clashes between police and opposition supporters after a disputed election.
Polls in 2005 were also marred by clashes.
A political deal allowing for more power-sharing led to peaceful elections in 2010, but divisions quickly returned and in 2015, the head of the electoral commission cancelled the vote outright.
In 2016, the opposition boycotted the re-run and the CCM was declared the victor.