BLANTYRE, Malawi (AP) — At least 18 people have been killed in this week’s anti-government demonstrations and hundreds have been arrested, officials in Malawi said Friday, while the U.S., the E.U. and Britain condemned the unprecedented violence in this southern African nation.
A heavy police and military presence was in place on the streets of Malawi’s major cities, and tension was mounting ahead of a mass funeral planned for some of the protesters.
President Bingu wa Mutharika has vowed to “ensure peace using any measure I can think of” following two days of deadly protests against his government. Britain’s Minister for Africa appealed to Mutharika to rein in security forces and loyalists.
“The ongoing violence and reprisals by elements connected to President Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party underline the concern that the U.K. has expressed about the state of democratic governance and human rights in Malawi,” Henry Bellingham said in a statement. “The rights of free assembly and expression guaranteed under the Malawian Constitution must be respected.”
On Friday, local authorities in the northern city of Mzuzu said Mutharika ordered them to stop a group funeral to avoid further violence in the area. Mourners gathered Friday morning and insisted on the mass burial.
Mutharika first came to power in a 2004 election, and was easily re-elected in May 2009. But tensions have been growing this year over worsening shortages of fuel and foreign currency. High unemployment alongside a deteriorating economic situation also threaten to reverse development gains made in the early years of his presidency.
On Wednesday, protesters attacked businesses belonging to the president’s political allies. Looters in the capital of Lilongwe had targeted shops belonging to ruling party officials, witnesses said.
Tim Hughes, a political analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs said that Malawi has previously only seen sporadic outbursts of violence, much of it between political parties.
“This form of public protest, taking on the state, expressing this degree of frustration, it’s a new phenomenon,” he said.
Foreign donors are also now becoming skeptical and cautious of a possible democratic reversal in the country, resulting in the severing of diplomatic ties, and a cut back in aid, Hughes added. Former ruler Britain already has indefinitely suspended aid to the country, citing concerns about economic management and a crackdown on human rights.
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.
Malawi, which gained independence from Britain in 1964, is among the world’s least developed nations and UNAIDS estimates there are 920,000 people living with HIV/AIDS here.
It has enjoyed relative peace and stability in the past decade and may be better known as the place where Madonna has adopted two children and launched a development project for orphans. Madonna on Wednesday urged officials to find a peaceful solution to the unrest.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Friday condemned the use of live ammunition by Malawian authorities, but also criticized protesters who committed violence and looting.
The U.S. on Friday also condemned the violence by authorities against protesters and said it was disturbed by reports of individuals being targeted for their political and social affiliations.
State Department spokeswoman Heide Bronke Fulton also criticized the government for banning private radio stations from reporting on the demonstrations.
“The government’s attempt to prohibit its citizens from marching, and the … ban on independent media coverage undermine democracy and the rule of law that Malawians cherish,” she said.
Four private radio stations said they were taken off-air for several hours Thursday and were banned from broadcasting live coverage of Wednesday’s unrest. Capital Radio station owner Alaudin Osman said letters to the broadcasters said the live coverage was “inciting people” to revolt against government.