The protest against President Robert Mugabe turned violent after police fired tear gas and beat protesters who responded by throwing stones in Zimbabwe's capital Harare yesterday.
The violence came as a High Court judge ordered police "not to interfere (with), obstruct or stop the march". The court had also ruled that the police should allow the protest to continue between 12 pm to 4 pm (1000-1400 GMT).
Dozens of police blocked off the site of an opposition rally for electoral reforms by 2018, when 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe who has ruled the southern African country for decades will seek re-election. More than a hundred police officers in riot gear and backed up by water cannons and armoured trucks, occupied the venue that opposition parties planned to use for their march.
The armed officers fired tear gas and water cannons on the opposition supporters after they refused to comply with the police's suggestion to leave. Protestors started throwing stones at the police in retaliation, some pulled down a street sign while others set fire on the tyres. 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 protesters and threatened journalists covering the rally.
Angry protesters voiced their frustrations over Mugabe's rule.
"Mr Mugabe, it's time you wake up! It's time you respected our people! You have no authority to abuse our money!" said protester, John Wiley.
Opposition protesters also clashed with supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party who had refused to clear their street stalls. Opposition parties leading the protests said the electoral commission was biased in favor of the ruling ZANU-PF and is run by security agencies loyal to Mugabe, charges the commission denies.
Mugabe slammed the protests and accused foreign powers of having a hand in the unrest.
"They are burning types in the streets in order to get into power. They are thinking that what happened in the Arab Spring is going to happen in this country, but we tell them that is not going to happen here," said Mugabe in remarks broadcast by state television.
'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 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 warned 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 the media.
Friday's court order was issued after police had on Wednesday violently put down another march by opposition youths demonstrating against police brutality in recent protests. Police yesterday arrested 67 people, and lawyers said one of them was a journalist.
Several foreign diplomatic missions based in Harare called on the authorities to ensure that basic human rights and freedoms are respected during policing.
Free and fair elections were the main demand of yesterday's march. The opposition says the vote was rigged in the 2013 elections that Mugabe won. The protesters want the next vote in 2018 to be supervised by international observers, including the United Nations. They are also calling for Mugabe to fire corrupt ministers, scrap plans to introduce local bank notes and end cash shortages.
Zimbabwe has seen a rise of violent protests in recent weeks, with demonstrators demanding the resignation of Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980.
(WION with inputs from agencies)