Zimbabwean police on Friday violently dispersed thousands of opposition supporters despite the High Court having authorized their protest in the capital Harare, opposition sources and witnesses said.
The clashes erupted in the morning after police prevented demonstrators from gathering for a march to the offices of the electoral commission, where they intended to deliver a petition calling for electoral reforms.
At least 40 people were injured, according to opposition party spokesman Luke Tamborinyoka, as police used batons, tear gas and water cannon to disperse the demonstrators, who set tyres, shops and flea markets on fire and threw objects at police.
Ambulance sirens were heard howling in Harare’s central business district after several people were reported injured.
Police spokeswoman Charity Charamba accused protesters of looting shops and said dozens of them had been arrested.
People seeking refuge at the Harare Magistrates Court were tear-gassed, witnesses said.
Opposition parties had planned the march to pressure President Robert Mugabe to implement electoral reforms ahead of the 2018 vote.
But police refused to receive the court order authorizing the rally, said Gift Nyandoro, a lawyer representing former vice president Joice Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People First party.
“Every time people gather, police start firing tear-gas or water cannons,” said Jealousy Mawarire from the same party.
Obert Gutu from the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change called on the Southern African Development Community to intervene against “a threat to regional peace and stability” in Zimbabwe.
Former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai said the harsh police response was symptomatic of a collapse of law and order in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe, 92, responded by saying Tsvangirai "wants to get into power at all costs." The former prime minister thinks Zimbabwe will experience its own Arab spring, Mugabe said. "No, we will not stand by and watch."
Mugabe said his government desired peace and wanted people to continue farming to deal with the hunger that has afflicted the nation.
The United Nations was following the situation in Zimbabwe "very closely," said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
"We urge the authorities, the government of Zimbabwe, to ensure that people's rights to peaceful protest and assembly be fully respected," Dujarric said.
The southern African country has seen months of protests against alleged human rights abuses and the deterioration of the economy under Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980.
Home Affairs Minister Ignatious Chombo vowed that instigators of violence would be dealt with.
"We are going to ensure that anyone who commits acts of any form of politically motivated violence would face the full wrath of the law,” Chombo told dpa.