Swazi police clash with drivers

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Manzini -

Swazi police fired tear gas as they waged running battles with bus drivers Tuesday in the kingdom's commercial centre Manzini, in the latest show of public anger at Africa's last absolute monarch.

Violence erupted as police tried to force bus drivers to move from the main Manzini station to a new satellite hub outside the city.

Drivers returned to occupy the old station, and stoned police who tried to remove them. Police responded with tear gas and batons, chasing the drivers through the streets for several hours.

The Swaziland Transport and Allied Workers Union responded by calling for a nine-day national strike from May 29, threatening to block all imports from neighbouring South Africa Ä the source of most of the kingdom's goods.

“Our intention is to shut down Swaziland until our demands are met,” said spokesman Stix Nkambule.

“Every drop of petroleum used in Swaziland is trucked in from South Africa. We will shut that spigot. Swaziland will come to a standstill,” he said in a statement.

In addition to re-opening the bus station, the union wants the kingdom to repeal the recently introduced 14-percent Value Added Tax.

The kingdom imposed the tax last month as the government tries to haul itself out of a crippling financial crisis.

But the new tax has provoked a public outcry, driving up prices of food and other necessities in a nation where 60 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day.

Government spokesman Percy Simelane said the tax was non-negotiable.

“VAT is going nowhere. That much is a fact,” Simelane told AFP.

Unions have spearheaded public protests against King Mswati III, ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the world's richest monarchs, whose personal fortune is estimated at $100 million.

Student loans have been slashed, grants to the elderly suspended, and hospitals report chronic shortages of medicines, hindering efforts to rein in the world's highest rate of HIV infection. - Sapa-AFP

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