Tear gas as Zimbabwe police beat anti-Mugabe marchers
Harare (AFP) - Riots erupted in Zimbabwe's capital Harare Friday after police fired tear gas and beat protesters who responded by throwing stones in the latest of a string of tense demonstrations.
The violence came a day after a High Court judge had ordered police "not to interfere (with), obstruct or stop the march".
Dozens of police blocked off the site of an opposition rally to demand electoral reforms before 2018 when 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the southern African country for decades, will seek re-election.
AFP correspondents saw armed police firing tear gas and water cannon at protesters gathered on the fringes of the central business district who were waiting for the march to start.
Demonstrators then began throwing stones at police while some set tyres ablaze and others pulled down the sign for a street named after Mugabe.
Some people caught up in the melee, including children going to a nearby agricultural show, ran for shelter in the magistrate's court while riot police pursued the demonstrators and threatened journalists covering the rally.
The usually-bustling pavements were clear of street hawkers and some shops were shut, with rocks, sticks and burning tyres strewn across the streets.
Opposition protesters also clashed with supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party who had refused to clear their street stalls.
ZANU-PF youths hurled stones at the opposition activists but were overpowered and their stalls were set on fire.
- 'Very deep anger' -
The march was organised by 18 opposition parties including the Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai and the Zimbabwe People First formed this year by former vice president Joice Mujuru.
Opposition leaders gave a news conference where they condemned the brutal repression of the protest and vowed to increase pressure on Mugabe's regime.
"If that was meant to cow us from demonstrating, I want to say we are going to do the same next week Friday," former Mugabe ally and ex-cabinet minister Didymus Mutasa told reporters.
Protests "will continue until the day we vote," said Mutasa, a former top member of ZANU-PF who is now a senior member of Mujuru's party.
"We have had enough of ZANU-PF misrule."
Tsvangirai said the public would not be easily calmed.
"The people's anger is very deep. The people's desperation is very deep," he said.
"Today's brutal suppression of the people will not stop them from exercising their rights."
- Government losing control -
Tsvangirai said the regime was in its "sunset hour", warning that efforts to suppress the protests would backfire.
"Citizens are like a spring: the more they are suppressed, the greater the rebound," he said.
Charles Laurie, an analyst with Verisk Maplecroft in London, agreed that the government was on the verge of losing control.
"The government is nearing a tipping point in its ability to control a population long used to violence and hardship, and who now have little to lose in putting themselves at risk in forcing political concessions," he told AFP.
"If the current anti-government momentum continues, we can expect the imposition of martial law and further draconian steps to re-assert government control."
Thursday's court order was issued a day after police violently put down another march by opposition youths, firing tear gas and water cannon and beating them as they staged a protest against police brutality.
Police had tried to "discourage" Friday's march, saying the anticipated crowd of around 150,000 would disrupt business and traffic.
Foreign diplomatic missions based in Harare called on the authorities to ensure that basic human rights and freedoms are respected during policing.
- 'Violence unacceptable' -
The Australian embassy issued a statement expressing concern over the recent unrest, saying the use of violence was "not acceptable under any circumstance."
And the Canadian embassy also said it was "increasingly concerned with reports of violence and human rights violations in response to public protest."
Friday's march was to demand free and fair elections. The last elections in 2013 were won by Mugabe in a vote the opposition said was rigged.
Top officials have suggested the protests were "Western-sponsored" and aimed at seeking "regime change".
Zimbabwe has seen a mounting tide of violent protests in recent weeks, with demonstrators demanding the resignation of Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980.
Under his rule, there has been an economic collapse that has caused food and cash shortages, with the country battling to pay public servants.