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BLANTYRE (Reuters) - Riots broke out in several cities in Malawi on Wednesday after police and the army tried to disperse protesters demanding the resignation of President Bingu wa Mutharika, whom they accuse of ignoring civil liberties and damaging the economy.
In the southern African nation's capital, Lilongwe, witnesses said smoke was billowing into the sky as protesters burnt cars, offices and shops belonging to ministers and politicians from Mutharika's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Troops were deployed on the streets of the normally sleepy commercial capital, Blantyre, and police fired teargas at marchers who had gathered outside the stock exchange in defiance of a court order.
"The earlier injunction has been withdrawn and we're proceeding on the planned route of the demonstration but sadly we're being smoked by teargas," Gift Makhwawa, president of the Malawi Law Society, told Reuters.
Police spokesman Willie Mwaluka said security forces were on high alert to curb the unprecedented wave of unrest in the landlocked former British colony.
"We are assessing the situation as it unfolds. Right now I don't have any confirmed figures of arrests, and extent of property damage," he said.
Marchers in the northern city of Mzuzu ransacked the DPP's offices in a rare show of defiance against Mutharika, a former World Bank economist who was first elected in 2004 and who has presided over six years of pacy but aid-funded economic growth.
However, the sheen has come off this year as Mutharika has become embroiled in a diplomatic row with Britain, Malawi's biggest donor, over a leaked embassy cable that referred to him as "autocratic and intolerant of criticism".
After the expulsion of its ambassador to Lilongwe, Britain kicked out Malawi's representative in London and suspended aid worth $550 million over the next four years.
The freeze has left a yawning hole in the budget of a country that has historically relied on handouts for 40 percent of its revenues, and intensified a dollar supply crunch that is threatening the kwacha's peg at 150 to the greenback.
Despite mounting commercial pressure on the currency and repeated calls from the likes of International Monetary Fund for a devaluation, Mutharika has vowed to stand firm.
"We are not off-track. It is the IMF which is off-track in Malawi," he said in a lecture broadcast on state media on Wednesday.
"When other developed countries are receiving bail-outs, what we get in Malawi are demands to devalue our currency."