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Blantyre - Police in Malawi on Thursday used tear gas to disperse school pupils marching against a public workers' strike, police said.
"Police fired tear gas to bring peace," Nicholas Gondwa told AFP.
Some 170 000 government workers, including teachers, launched a strike last week demanding a 21 percent pay hike.
The police said the they were forced to fire tear gas at the protest because it had been hijacked by hooligans.
"Criminals took advantage of the demonstrations by the pupils and broke into a filling station shop and looted goods," he said.
Gondwa said the pupils, who chanted anti-government songs, waved tree branches and blocked roads with boulders.
Derek Phiri, a 13-year-old pupil at Blantyre Boys near Ndirande, the country's largest shantytown, said the children were "simply holding a peaceful march to send a message to the president that she must resolve the strike by the civil servants, because it affects us as well."
Tear gas was also fired at a group of stone-throwing children from five schools earlier when they tried to march to the presidential palace in the administrative capital Lilongwe, witnesses said.
"The situation was hostile and... resulted in running battles with the pupils, who threw stones back at the police," said resident Richard Makoka. Police were also heavily armed, he added.
Primary school children in Malawi are aged six to 15.
A police officer, who asked not to be named, told AFP: "We had no choice but to fire the tear gas... We were afraid we could have been overrun by the pupils."
Malawi's 60,000 teachers are part of the 170,000 strong civil service, and have joined the strike which is now in its second week.
Meanwhile the president of the cash-strapped country, Joyce Banda, vowed that public workers, who earn an average of $100 a month, deserve a raise.
"Whatever the case, civil servants should get salary increment," Banda told reporters before she left for an Africa-South America summit in Equatorial Guinea.
Since she took office last year, Banda has embarked on tough and unpopular economic recovery reforms. -Sapa-AFP