Authorities in Malawi blocked a mass funeral today for seven people killed during rioting in the northen town of Mzuzu, as troops patrolled main cities to prevent fresh unrest.
Mzuzu suffered half of the deaths from two days of protests and rioting that the health ministry said left 18 dead across the impoverished southern African country, drawing international condemnation.
Police said 275 people were arrested, mostly in the capital Lilongwe, where soldiers patrolled the mostly empty streets today.
In Mzuzu, mourners had already begun gathering at the mortuary to transport seven bodies to the Zolozolo cemetery when authorities ordered a stop to the funeral.
“We have been stopped by the government with our arrangements to bury the seven heroes,” Moses Mkandawire, director of the Church and Society rights group, told AFP.
“The government says it will provide transport to have the seven buried in their respective (village) homes,” said Mkandawire.
Other funerals were planned on Friday in Lilongwe and the commercial hub Blantyre.
On Wednesday and Thursday, police used tear gas and fired live ammunition to disperse protesters across the country who took to the streets accusing President Bingu wa Mutharika of mismanaging the economy and trampling on democratic rights.
More than 275 people were arrested across Malawi during two days of rioting, in the deadliest protests since the beginning of democracy in 1994, police said.
About 200 were arrested for looting in the capital Lilongwe, the epicentre of the riots, police spokesman Davie Chingwalu said.
Another 45 were arrested in the former colonial capital Zomba, and 30 in the commercial hub Blantyre, Chingwalu said.
Chingwalu said those arrested were “pure thugs” who face charges including malicious damage to property, arson and conduct likely to cause breach of peace.
“On Friday the situation was quite normal” in Blantyre, Chingwalu said.
The killings have raised global condemnation, with rights groups calling for a full investigation into the deaths.
“The Malawian authorities must immediately launch an independent, impartial and thorough investigation into their use of firearms resulting in these killings,” said Erwin var der Borght, Amnesty International’s director for Africa.
The riots underscored growing discontent againt the 77-year-old Mutharika, who won a second term in office in May 2009.
Mutharika had earned praise in his first term for ending a famine with popular but expensive fertiliser subsidies.
But last week Britain became the latest donor to cut aid to Malawi over concerns about economic mismanagement and Mutharika’s moves to rein in the media, restrict lawsuits against the government and limit protests.
Britain’s minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, said the rioting highlighted London’s concerns about Mutharika’s rule.
“I call on President Mutharika to rein in the security forces and elements of his party, and to allow the media to report freely on the situation in the country,” he said.
“Any attacks or reprisals against demonstrators, opposition leaders or the media are absolutely unacceptable.”
The United States and the European Union also denounced the violence, with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Asthon urging the president to make good on his promise of dialogue with the opposition.
“Denying the right of people to protest peacefully is unacceptable,” she said.
“The president, while criticising the violence has recognised the need for dialogue with all stakeholders I strongly encourage this dialogue to start as soon as possible,” Ashton said.
Malawi has suffered crippling fuel shortages as the government ran low on foreign currency to pay for imports, stoking public discontent.
Half of Malawi’s 13 million people live below the poverty line, according to UN figures.
The government relies on donors to fund about 40 per cent of its budget, but recently passed an austerity budget to compensate for suspended aid.