HARARE: At least one person was killed in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare on Wednesday as soldiers opened fire to disperse stone-throwing opposition supporters who accused the ruling party of trying to rig Monday’s presidential election, witnesses said.
Gunfire crackled in the streets while troops, backed by armoured vehicles and a military helicopter and some with their faces masked, cleared the streets.
One person was shot dead near a bus rank, witnesses at the scene told a Reuters photographer.
The deployment of soldiers and their beating of unarmed protesters is a setback to President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s efforts to shed Zimbabwe’s pariah status after decades of repression under Robert Mugabe, who was ousted in a coup in November.
Even before the violence, European Union observers questioned the conduct of the presidential and parliamentary poll, the first since Mugabe’s forced resignation after nearly 40 years in charge of the Southern African nation.
The unrest started soon after opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Nelson Chamisa claimed he had won the popular vote.
Scores of his supporters who had been burning tyres in the streets then attacked riot police near the Zimbabwe Election Commision (ZEC) headquarters. Officers responded with tear gas and water-cannon.
“I was making a peaceful protest. I was beaten by soldiers,” said Norest Kemvo, who had gashes to his face and right hand. “This is our government. This is exactly why we wanted change. They are stealing our election.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Zimbabwe’s political leaders and people to exercise restraint and reject any form of violence.
Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi said the army had been called in to ensure “peace and tranquillity”.
A police spokeswoman said the troops were deployed at the request of police, who could not cope with the violence. They will remain under police command, the spokeswoman, Charity Charamba said.
However, without the international community’s stamp of approval for the election, Zimbabwe’s next leader will struggle to unlock the billions of dollars of international donor finance needed to get the shattered economy back on its feet.
The EU observers expressed concern about delays in releasing the results of the presidential contest, a two-horse race between Chamisa and Mnangagwa, head of the ruling ZANU-PF party.
As gunfire echoed through downtown Harare, Mnangagwa called for calm and urge patience while results were collated.
Many protesters accused the army of unprovoked brutality.
“We had no weapons. Why are the army here beating us? shooting us? This is not an election it is a disgrace on our country,” one young man, Colbert Mugwenhi, said.
A Reuters witness saw soldiers with sticks beat two people and counted at least five trucks full of soldiers.
“We are tired of them stealing our votes. This time we will not allow it, we will fight,” said one protester who wore a red MDC beret in central Harare.