Crackdown on Zimbabwe protesters 'a taste of things to come' as president cuts short trip abroad

20 January 2019, 20:48 | Updated: 20 January 2019, 22:54

Zimbabwe's president has cut short his overseas trip after a deadly crackdown on protesters in the African country - which his government has called "just a foretaste of things to come".

Emmerson Mnangagwa had been under growing pressure to end his two-week trip abroad - during which he met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow - amid claims of abuse by Zimbabwean security forces.

Human rights groups say at least a dozen people have been killed and hundreds detained following days of unrest in the Zimbabwe capital Harare and second city Bulawayo.

Police have so far only confirmed three deaths.

It comes after Mr Mnangagwa - nicknamed The Crocodile - announced fuel prices would more than double in Zimbabwe, making the struggling country's petrol the most expensive in the world.

In a post on Twitter, the president did not mention the recent violence but said he would no longer attend the World Economic Forum in Davos "in light of the economic situation".

"The first priority is to get Zimbabwe calm, stable and working again," he said.

But in a direct warning to protesters, the president's spokesman George Charamba told the state-controlled Sunday Mail newspaper: "(The) government will not stand by while such narrow interests play out so violently.

"The response so far is just a foretaste of things to come."

Security forces in Zimbabwe have been accused of carrying out night raids and beating suspected protesters in their homes, according to human rights groups.

More than 600 people have been arrested for alleged public order offences, including at least four politicians from the opposition MDC party.

The Zimbabwe government has also blocked access to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and the messaging service WhatsApp.

Evan Mawarire, a pastor who rose to prominence as a critic of former Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe, is among those detained and faces a possible 20-year prison sentence on a subversion charge.

Mr Mawarire's lawyer said more than 400 people have been denied bail and described the case against his client as a "travesty of justice".

Before winning a contested election in July, Mr Mnangagwa promised a clean break with the 37-year rule of Mugabe, who used security forces to quell civilian protests before being forced out in a de facto coup in November 2017.

The MDC says Mr Mnangagwa, a former Mugabe ally, is now overseeing a return to authoritarian rule by using the same tactics.

UN officials have denounced the crackdown on protesters, while an independent inquiry found that the Zimbabwean army used excessive force when it stepped in to stop post-election violence last August, during which six people were shot dead.