Harare - Police in Zimbabwe's capital on Monday fired tear gas, water cannons and warning shots during riots by minibus drivers and others protesting alleged police harassment. The violence, in which 30 people were arrested, came amid a surge in protests in recent weeks because of increasing economic hardship and alleged mismanagement by the government of President Robert Mugabe.
An Associated Press journalist saw protesters severely beat two police officers with sticks, then take their uniforms and helmets and wear them.
The protesters blocked roads leading into the center of Harare, forcing many people to walk up to 10 kilometers to get to work. Rioters threw stones at police and vehicles, and some children on their way to school were caught up in the chaos.
Outnumbered police later sought to negotiate with the crowds after failing to disperse thousands of protesters, who were concentrated in Harare's eastern suburbs. Many rioters were young men who can't find regular employment and make a living off drivers by charging a small fee to load passengers into minibuses.
Some police were seen firing live ammunition into the air to ward off the crowds. They also brought in police dogs.
The drivers' grievances stem from anger over numerous roadblocks that police sometimes set up in city streets, which drivers allege are to demand bribes. Police said they had reduced the number of roadblocks after complaints from parliamentarians, tourism operators and others.
Thirty people were arrested for inciting the protests, police spokeswoman Charity Charamba said.
“We have information and intelligence on the identities of some criminal elements who are behind the social unrest,” Charamba said at a news conference.
Such acts of defiance and clashes with the police are rare in Zimbabwe, although the government deployed the army against 1998 riots over soaring food prices. Mugabe, 92, has ruled the southern African country since independence from white minority rule in 1980, scoffing at frequent allegations of human rights violations.
Frustrations over rapidly deteriorating economic conditions in Zimbabwe, compounded by dissatisfaction over alleged government corruption and incompetence, have resulted in near-daily protests in recent weeks. On Friday, protestors burned a warehouse at Beitbridge, a busy border post between Zimbabwe and South Africa, over a Zimbabwean decision to ban a wide range of imports.
Seventeen people appeared in court on Sunday over the Beitbridge protests and were charged with public violence.
Separately, state hospital doctors and other government workers said they will strike over the government's failure to pay their June salaries on time.
Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa has been pleading with Western countries to unlock financing for Zimbabwe in the form of loans that were halted close to two decades ago. The financing dried up due to failure to repay debts as well as international sanctions imposed because of concerns over democratic rights.
Some recent political protests have been notable for their brazenness. Police said they are looking for Lumumba William Matumanje, a former ruling party activist who used an obscenity to denigrate Mugabe while launching his own political party last week. People have often been sent to jail for such conduct in Zimbabwe.
Last month, video footage showed an anti-government protester shouting in the lobby of an upscale hotel in Harare and haranguing police until they move in and drag him away. The video shows a protest by activists angry at Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko's alleged 18-month stay in a $400-a-night hotel suite in the capital, Harare.
Activist Sten Zvorwadza was charged with threats to commit malicious damage to property and was freed on $200 bail.
The majority of Zimbabwe's citizens survive on just a dollar a day, the official statistics agency says.