Malawi riots death toll rises to 19

The death toll in anti-government riots in Malawi rose to 19 on Saturday as President Bingu wa Mutharika replaced the country's army chief days after soldiers were deployed to end the protests.

The change at the top came as Malawians began burying their dead after two days of unrest that erupted after police tried to stop nationwide anti-government protests on Wednesday.

Protestors take to the streets of Malawi's commercial capital Blantyre, July 20, 2011. Riots broke out in several cities in Malawi after police tried to disperse protesters demanding the resignation of President Bingu wa Mutharika, whom they accuse of ignoring civil liberties and trashing the economy. Credit: REUTERS

While the initial announcement broadcast on state media late Friday gave no reason for General Marko Chiziko's departure, Information Minister Symon Vuwa Kaunda later insisted it had been scheduled.

“The contract had expired,” he told AFP. “It is mandatory that an army general can only serve for two terms. So he had served his full term.”

Chiziko's legally allowed maximum six-year term expired in July 2010, local media reported earlier this year, but Kaunda insisted Friday's sudden switch in army chiefs was not related to the unrest.

“It has nothing to do with it,” he said, “We are back to normality. Things are calm now, as of yesterday already.”

Mutharika appointed Brigadier General Henry Odillo to replace Chiziko who was named as Malawi's national security advisor, a newly created post, in a state-owned radio news bulletin on Saturday evening.

Soldiers were sent to Malawi's main cities on Thursday, a day after police had used teargas and sometimes live ammunition to try to disperse demonstrations against Mutharika's leadership.

On Saturday, the death toll from the week's violence rose to 19, as health ministry spokesman Henry Chimbali explained that one body in the administrative capital Lilongwe had not been properly registered.

Relatives on Saturday were picking up the bodies of their loved ones for burial from the city morgue, he added.

“As of Friday we received reports that 44 people were admitted to government hospitals suffering from various injuries and 87 had been treated as outpatients,” he said.

World leaders condemned the crackdown on protesters after police shot dead nine protesters in the northern city of Mzuzu, others in the capital Blantyre, and in Karonga, the northern district bordering Tanzania.

Following riots, a defiant Mutharika on Friday accused opposition leaders and rights activists of seeking to overthrow his government.

The protesters would meet the “wrath of government”, he vowed.

Police on Saturday said calm had returned to the usually peaceful southern African country where more than 275 people were arrested. Businesses, shops and banks had reopened, they said.

“It's now calm everywhere and in all townships in Blantyre,” Davie Chingwalu, police spokesman in the south, told AFP.

Two people killed in Blantyre during the unrest were buried on Friday by their families in low-key ceremonies, he added.

In the northern city of Mzuzu, which also buried its dead on Friday, police spokesman Edward Longwe said businesses are open as normal.

“It's very peaceful,” he added.

Just days before the riots, Britain became the latest donor to cut aid to Malawi over concerns about economic management and Mutharika's moves to rein in the media, restrict lawsuits against the government and limit protests.

The United States on Friday warned that it was reviewing a $350

million grant in the wake of the riots.

Malawi has suffered crippling fuel shortages as the government runs low on foreign currency to pay for imports, stoking public discontent. - Sapa-AFP