South Africa, UK urge restraint after deadly unrest in Eswatini
Regional powerhouse South Africa on Thursday urged Eswatini’s security forces to practise “total restraint” and Britain expressed concern following reports of a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
Dissent has long been stifled in Africa’s last absolute monarchy, a small landlocked state previously known as Swaziland.
But demonstrations escalated radically this week as protesters defied a dusk-to-dawn curfew to take to the streets, looting and torching buildings linked to King Mswati III — and demanding immediate political reform.
The government in the southern African kingdom of 1.3 million people has since deployed the military to quell the protests, which it blames on “terrorists”.
Unverified videos that have emerged on social media showed police and soldiers using force to disperse protesters and pulling people from homes and beating them up.
Sounds of gunshots rang across a neighbourhood in the capital Mbabane where a group of young men reportedly tried to loot a liquor store on Thursday, according to an AFP correspondent.
Internet access has been limited, straining communication, while shops that were shuttered earlier this week started re-opening on Thursday.
Long queues formed outside supermarkets in Mbabane as residents restocked on groceries while gas stations had run out of petrol.
Foreign governments, including South Africa, Britain and the United States, as well as global rights watchdogs have expressed concern over the violence.
“The South African government calls on the security forces to exercise total restraint and protect the lives and property of the people,” foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said.
“We are particularly concerned by reports of loss of life and destruction of properties,” he said in a statement.
Britain’s Minister for Africa James Duddridge tweeted that “the escalation in violence, including looting, is deeply concerning”.
“We call on all parties to engage constructively and restore calm,” he said.
Speaking in state radio on Thursday, acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku called for unity.
“I urge emaSwati not to be deceived by foreign elements,” Masuku said, referring to the people of Eswatini.
“These acts are not done by emaSwati, but by terrorists and thugs,” he added.
Activists earlier this week said eight people had been killed in clashes with police, but on Thursday an opposition party said the number was closer to 40, citing information collated from morgues.
Wandile Dludlu, secretary general of the People’s United Democratic Movement said “the 40-plus we are talking about are corpses that have been delivered in the different mortuaries”.
He said the excessive the use of force did not match the crime.
“These people are unarmed… but the amount of force that the state is responding with, on the basis that people looted… is brazen dictatorship,” Dludlu told AFP.
Human Rights Watch said eight people reached by phone described “indiscriminate shooting at protesters by security forces and violence by some protesters”.
“The Eswatini government should ensure that security forces act within the law, and avoid arbitrary use of force,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at HRW.
The United States has also urged authorities in Eswatini to exercise restraint and allow peaceful protests.
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