July 22, 2011 / 7:45 AM / 6 years ago

Mass funeral for Malawi protesters, president warns others

Protesters take to the streets of Malawi's commercial capital Blantyre, July 20, 2011. REUTERS/Eldson Chagara

BLANTYRE/LILONGWE (Reuters) - Seven Malawians killed in anti-government riots this week were buried in a mass grave on Friday as President Bingu wa Mutharika threatened to stamp out any further protests against his rule.

At least 18 people have been killed and 200 arrested in unprecedented protests against Mutharika, with soldiers firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds calling for an end to what they say is autocratic rule.

Mutharika, a former World Bank economist first elected in 2004 who critics say is ruining the country’s meagre economy, said he was running out of patience with the protesters.

“If you go back to the streets, I will smoke you out. Enough is enough,” he said at a police graduation ceremony in Zomba, Malawi’s former capital.

“Have the demonstrations brought the much-sought after fuel and forex?”

Shops were closed and troops patrolled streets in major urban areas although the police and military presence in southern commercial centre Blantyre has been reduced and vehicles were returning to roads and many citizens planned to attend funerals for those killed in the clashes.

Colby Mkupa, a civil servant, waiting for hours in a queue for petrol in Lilongwe called for Mutharika to go before elections planned for 2014.

“He will destroy this country. This bunch of doctors, they’ve completely failed,” he said.

The United States and Britain condemned violence by Malawi authorities and their crackdown on private radio stations trying to report on the violence.

“In light of continued rioting and rumors of retaliation, we urge restraint from both sides,” the U.S. embassy in Pretoria said in a statement.

Protesters have given an August 16 deadline to Mutharika to meet them and discuss their demands, promising a bigger rallies if he fails to meet their call.

Such unrest is almost unheard of in Malawi, ruled for decades after independence in 1964 by the iron-fisted Hastings Banda, and echoes popular uprisings that have engulfed north Africa and the Middle East over the last seven months.

Health ministry spokesman Henry Chimbali confirmed 10 deaths in the northern cities of Karonga and Mzuzu, where protesters angry at chronic fuel shortages and Mutharika’s rule ransacked his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) offices on Wednesday.

Eight others died in the capital, Lilongwe, and Blantyre.

The crackdown in the former British colony is likely to intensify public anger against Mutharika, and could destroy his already troubled relationship with donors who keep his government afloat.

Mutharika has presided over six years of high-paced but aid-funded growth, and the sheen came off earlier this year when he became 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”.

The cable led to the expulsion of Britain’s ambassador to Lilongwe, and in response, Britain expelled 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 relied on handouts for 40 percent of its revenues, and intensified a foreign currency shortage that is threatening the kwacha’s peg at 150 to the dollar.

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