Malawi death toll rises

2011-07-22 07:18

Blantyre – Malawi’s president has lashed out at anti-government demonstrators as two days of protests left at least 10 people dead in unprecedented levels of unrest in the southern African country.

Hospital officials and activists said yesterday that the victims had been shot with live ammunition, and that at least 44 others in the northern city of Mzuzu alone were being treated for gunshot wounds.

President Bingu wa Mutharika vowed to “ensure peace using any measure I can think of” as protesters gathered for a second day in this impoverished country roiled by fuel shortages and price hikes.

“If you break shops and banks will you have fuel? You demonstrated yesterday and throughout the night until today, but is there fuel today because of the demonstrations?” the president asked.

Mutharika first came to power in a 2004 election, and he was re-elected in May 2009. But tensions have been growing this year over worsening fuel shortages.

A researcher for human rights watchdog Amnesty International, Simeon Mawanza, said that the president’s regime is becoming increasingly intolerant of dissenting voices.

“The tension there won’t die down just because of yesterday’s events,” he said, adding: “It could intensify, as people died at the hands of police.”

The situation was tense but calm yesterday amid a heavy military and police deployment on the streets in the country’s two main cities.

Tim Hughes, a political analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said the unrest is wholly uncharacteristic of Malawi.

“Certainly since democracy in 1994, while there’s been sporadic outbursts of inter-party violence, there’s never been a violent protest like this on the streets,” he said, adding that he believes the wave of protests is spurred by a sharp decline in the Malawian economy.

Foreign donors are also now becoming sceptical and cautious of a possible democratic reversal in the country, resulting in the severing of diplomatic ties, and a cut back in aid, Hughes said.

Former colonial ruler Britain already has indefinitely suspended aid to the country, citing concerns about economic management and a crackdown on human rights.

Yesterday, Britain’s Minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, said the situation was “worrying” and appealed to Mutharika to rein in security forces and loyalists.

Elections are not due again in Malawi until 2014, and Mutharika is barred from seeking a third term.

Mutharika, a 77-year-old former World Bank economist, had won widespread praise from international institutions and donor governments for pushing through economic reforms and clamping down on corruption.

But he also has alienated many former allies including his predecessor, whom he accused of plotting to assassinate him. 

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