Harare - Business was ground to a halt in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, on Friday as protesters turned violent and burned tyres in streets, smashed shop windows and looted shoes, clothing, food, cash registers, cellphones as well as computer gadgets.

The protests started early in the morning at the open grounds - termed Freedom Square by opposition party supporters - near Rotten Row Magistrate's Court as the demonstrators gathered for the “mega” event.

Protesters gathered as early as 8am, singing the “war mode” song “Ihondo Muchengete Vana”, meaning “It's war, those who will remain behind, please look after the children”.

Anti-riot police officers gathered and parked three water canons nearby. The protesters grew in numbers and police tried to chase them away. The rioters argued the High Court had okayed the protest march, where political parties under the banner National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA) wanted to hand over a petition to Zimbabwe Electoral Commission calling for electoral reforms.

However, when police realised they were being outnumbered, they started firing teargas canisters at the protesters, who rushed for cover inside the courts.

The riot police fired two more canisters at the entrance of the courts, before business was adjourned for the day. Tearsmoke affected exhibitors at the Harare Agricultural Exhibition Park, where business also came to a standstill for some time, as demonstrators ran towards the exhibition park and scaled perimeter metres to find their way into the park.

The demonstrators would disperse and regroup a few seconds later, gathering their arsenal and stoning the anti-riot police officers as well as their trucks. Along Samora Machel Avenue and Rotten Row, the protesters barricaded streets with burning tyres and huge stones.

The protesters then walked into town and defaced Robert Mugabe Way street signs. The group had also defaced street signs at Freedom Square, which were put up just before the Zanu PF congress in December 2014.

At the busy Copacabana commuter omnibus terminus, there were fierce clashes between Zanu PF youths and the protesters, mostly opposition party supporters.

The Zanu PF supporters were defending their market stalls and second-hand bales from being burnt, but despite their resistance, their efforts the two rival parties hurled stones at each other. Protesters accused the Zanu PF youths of benefiting alone from their party, which has been in power since independence at 1980.

The protesters torched the market stalls and bales of second-hand clothes worth thousands of dollars. At around mid-day, a military helicopter hovered over the central business district. Several Toyota Landcruiser trucks carrying Zimbabwe Republic Police military units roamed around the town.

Protesters smashed the cellphones of people and accused them of circulating pictures of the violent protests on social media groups. They feared the photos could be evidence enough to secure their arrest. Stones were hurled at those watching from balconies of high-rise building.

As the number of protesters swelled, the police ran out of the water canon skunk spray and had to resort to what seemed as tap water to control the crowd. Several groups led the protests from different points in the city, while police reinforcement teams were still outnumbered to take on the protesters.

Choppies Supermarket, in which Vice-President Phekelezela Mphoko is said to have a stake, was closed for business. Pick n Pay on Second Street would close its shutters each time there was commotion on the streets.

Joina City, a posh central business district shopping mall, pulled down shutters as early as 11am.

After lunch, police fired tearsmoke canisters in Harare's streets, as they sought to chase crowds out of town. Water canons continued roaming the streets late in the day, with sirens continuously whirling.

African News Agency