President Robert Mugabe has warned protesters there will be no “Arab Spring” in Zimbabwe after anti-government demonstrations descended it to some of the worst violence seen in the southern African nation for two decades.
Zimbabwean police fired tear gas and water cannon at opposition leaders and hundreds of demonstrators at a protest against Mugabe and the ruling Zanu-PF, before unrest swept across large parts of the capital Harare.
“They are thinking that what happened in the Arab Spring is going to happen in this country but we tell them that it is not going to happen here,” Mr Mugabe told state television, referring to a series of uprisings that toppled leaders across the Arab world.
He accused Western countries, including the United States, of sponsoring the protests.
“They are fighting because of Americans,” said Mr Mugabe.
Earlier, opposition head Morgan Tsvangirai and former vice president Joice Mujuru fled a rally in their cars while protesters ran for cover as police broke up the core of the demonstration.
However, anti-Mugabe leaders warned that this would be the first of a series of protests.
Mr Mugabe’s opponents have become emboldened by rising public anger and protests over an economic meltdown, cash shortages and high unemployment.
The 92-year-old president has led Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980.
Clashes spread through the streets of the capital Harare as riot police fought running battles with protesters who hurled rocks at officers, set tyres ablaze and burned a popular market to the ground, in some of the worst unrest since food riots in 1998.
Didymus Mutasa, a senior official from Mr Mujuru’s party and convener of Friday’s protest, vowed to repeat the demonstration a week from now and blamed police for the violence and disobeying a court order allowing the march to proceed.
“If that was intended to cow us from demonstrating, I want to say the opposite has been the case. We are going next Friday to do exactly the same as we have done today,” Mr Mutasa told reporters.
Most businesses shut down early on Friday fearing looting by protesters. Mr Mujuru said 50 people were injured and taken to hospital.
“Mugabe’s rule must end now, that old man has failed us,” said one protester before throwing a rock at a taxi.
More than a hundred police officers in riot gear, backed up by water cannons and armoured trucks, occupied the venue that opposition parties had planned to use for their demonstration.
As opposition supporters arrived for the march, they were told by the police to leave. The officers then fired tear gas and water cannon when parts of the crowd refused to comply.