Blantyre - A court in Malawi ordered the release on Monday of a radio journalist charged with causing public alarm after he interviewed a man who claimed his village was visited by blood-sucking vampires.

Magistrate Slyvester Kalembera added that the alleged offence was a misdemeanour, and described the arrest of radio presenter Maganizo Mazeze as "unlawful and illegal".

On Saturday Mazeze interviewed a man from the tea-growing region of Thyolo, where rumours, fuelled by high levels of illiteracy, have spread that vampires are preying on the blood of impoverished Malawians.

Mazeze was arrested on Sunday and charged with broadcasting information likely to cause public alarm.

But the magistrate told a packed courtroom that the police had acted unprofessionally by arresting the journalist.

If the police wanted to renew the charges, they would have to issue a warrant of arrest.

At a recent political rally, President Bakili Muluzi urged Malawians to report to the police anyone talking about vampires.

The vampire rumours appeared to have developed from earlier claims that the government was working in league with unnamed international organisations to extract blood from the poor in return for food.

The latest frenzy was reminiscent of the 1970s, when the government of former dictator Kamuzu Banda was accused of murdering people to send their blood to apartheid South Africa.

But the blood-sucking tales have found an audience among the hungry in Malawi, where three million people need emergency food aid because of crop failures.

Two weeks ago a senior official from the ruling United Democratic Front party was assaulted by shantytown dwellers in Blantyre after being accused of harbouring vampires.

Muluzi has accused opposition politicians bent on tarnishing his government's image of starting the rumours. - Sapa-AFP