A riot policeman kicks out at a man during protests in Harare. Picture: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

Harare - Zimbabwe police combed Harare's streets rounding up suspected opposition supporters on Friday, enforcing a clampdown on dissent after using batons and water cannon to break up a protest that authorities had declared illegal.

Police patrolled the usually bustling city centre in lorries and on foot, witnesses said, firing volleys of tear gas to disperse any crowds that attempted to gather as most shops and business shut amid fears that the clashes could turn more violent. Police also directed tear gas at journalists.

Friday's street demonstration was to have been the first in a nationwide series of protests organised by the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, which accuses President Emmerson Mnangagwa's government of state-sponsored violence, corruption and economic mismanagement.

It was banned on Thursday by police, who said any participants would be committing a crime, but more than 100 MDC supporters defied that order before being chased by baton-wielding officers from one of the city's main squares.

Denouncing what it labelled the actions of a fascist government, the MDC called the protest off early on Friday after armed police barred access to the party's Harare offices and its court appeal against the ban failed.

"The constitution guarantees the right to demonstration ... yet this fascist regime has denied and proscribed this right to the people of Zimbabwe," MDC Vice President Tendai Biti told reporters outside the court.

"...We have jumped from the frying pan into the fire after the coup of November 2017... We don't accept the conduct of this regime, the conduct of Mr Mnangagwa."

In Geneva, a spokesman for the U.N. human rights commissioner urged the government to engage with citizens on legitimate economic grievances and "stop cracking down on peaceful protesters."

The series of demonstrations has been viewed a high-profile test of Mnangagwa's ability to tolerate dissent in a country tainted by a long history of repression. So far this year he has failed to make good on promises of political and economic reform.

Elected after the armed forces intervened to oust Robert Mugabe, Mnangagwa has said he aims to break with the brutal legacy that characterised much of his predecessor's 37 years in power.

But the economy is mired in its worst crisis in a decade, and Mnangagwa is struggling to convince the growing ranks of the country's poor that his government's austerity measures and reforms can trigger a recovery.

Zimbabweans had also expected last year's vote to usher in a new dawn of expanded political rights and an end to the country's international pariah status, but the elections instead left the country more polarised.

APPARATUS OF STATE

In January, a violent security crackdown in Harare against fuel demonstrations left more than a dozen people dead.

Days ahead of the planned Harare demonstration, six political activists were abducted from their homes at night and beaten by armed men, a coalition of rights groups said.

In another echo of the Mugabe era, the apparatus of state was again out in full force on Friday and the city's streets unusually quiet.

Witnesses saw police and armed soldiers searching buses, taxis and private vehicles at checkpoints and randomly asking for identity documents.

One woman was taken to hospital with a deep gash on her head after baton-wielding police charged at MDC supporters.

Anger is mounting as Zimbabweans grapple with triple-digit inflation, rolling power cuts and shortages of U.S. dollars, fuel and bread - bringing back memories of the hyperinflation of a decade ago that forced the country to ditch its currency.

"We want change because we are tired of promises. We are tired, enough is enough," MDC member Patience Gurure told Reuters moments before police dispersed the group she was in.

In a letter to church leaders published on Friday in the state-owned Herald newspaper, Mnangagwa said the economic hardship had its roots in sanctions imposed by the West more than a decade ago as well as a severe drought this year.

He also said MDC leader Nelson Chamisa had rejected his invitation to dialogue aimed at resolving Zimbabwe's political and economic problems. Chamisa has said he will only sit down with Mnangagwa if there is a neutral arbiter.

"The doors of national dialogue are still open to all political leaders," Mnangagwa said.

Reuters