Malawi leader defiant as 12 die

2011-07-21 18:58

Blantyre - Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika on Thursday refused to step down after two days of riots left 12 dead, as anti-government protests turned into looting and running battles with police.

The violence triggered international condemnation ranging from Amnesty International to American pop idol Madonna.

Soldiers were deployed into townships around the capital Lilongwe and the commercial hub Blantyre, clearing the 2 000 protesters who had taken to the streets in each city, accusing Mutharika of mismanaging the economy and trampling on democratic rights.

But the 77-year-old president, who won a second term in office in May 2009, issued a defiant message to the nation.

"I would continue to govern the country," Mutharika said on national radio. "As mandated by the constitution, the authority to run government is in my hands and not any other person."

The epicentre of the violence was in the northern town of Mzuzu, where health ministry spokesperson Henry Chimbali said nine were killed. Two were also killed in Blantyre and one in the town of Karonga on the border with Tanzania.

"Our assessment is that most of the victims died of heavy bleeding," he said, adding that 22 people had been treated for injuries around the country.

Rights activist Moses Mkandawire, who heads the Church and Society rights group run by the Presbyterian Church, said some of the victims "were innocent people who were shot while walking".

Hospital tear gassed

He found seven bodies with gunshot wounds at the morgue in Mzuzu, and said he hoped to arrange burials on Friday.

Mkandawire said the victims were shot when looters descended on Chinese-owned shops and offices of Mutharika's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Amnesty said police had fired tear gas into a hospital in Lilongwe, forcing it to shut down.

"While police must take all necessary steps to protect the right to life, firing tear gas into a hospital, affecting patients unable to flee from the gas, is unacceptable," said Erwin van der Borght, the organisations's director for Africa.

Madonna, who adopted two Malawian children and runs charities in the impoverished southern African country, said she was "deeply concerned" by the violence and its "devastating impact on Malawi's children".

"Malawi must find a peaceful solution to these problems that allows donors to have confidence that their money will be used efficiently," she said.

In Blantyre and Lilongwe, banks and stores pulled down their shutters as protesters blocked roads and ransacked shops.

"Many workers here in the capital city are returning home for safety and vehicles are speeding away as demonstrators are gearing to cause violence," said Mike Chipalasa, spokesperson of the state-funded Malawi Human Rights Commission.

"Most of these people are thugs who want to loot shops in the name of demonstrations," said Richard Nyimbo, a Blantyre resident.

The violence broke out Wednesday when authorities tried to block anti-government protests organised by a coalition of rights groups.

Austerity budget

Shops were looted while homes and vehicles were set ablaze, as police fired tear gas and live rounds, in some instances beating back crowds with their rifle butts.

Several activists and journalists were beaten and arrested before being released.

Mutharika had earned praise in his first term for ending a famine with popular but expensive fertilizer subsidies.

But last week Britain became the latest donor to cut aid to Malawi over concerns about economic mismanagement and Mutharika's moves to rein in the media, restrict lawsuits against the government and restrain protests.

Malawi has suffered crippling fuel shortages as the government ran low on foreign currency to pay for imports, stoking public discontent.

Half of Malawi's 13 million people live below the poverty line, according to UN figures.

The government relies on donors to fund about 40% of its budget, but recently passed an austerity budget to compensate for suspended aid.