Swaziland standoff ends

Swazi police fired tear gas to disperse activists who held anti-government protests for a second day on Wednesday, despite a call to stop the action after a police crackdown.

Union leaders said they had suspended their protest against King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch, to re-strategize as fresh arrests and a heavy police presence in the main city blocked activists from rallying.

Hundreds of teachers at first refused to end the protest, and police fired tear gas to remove them from an office where they were staging a sit-in. But the standoff ended after several hours, said Muzi Masuku, a spokesman for the Open Society non-governmental organization, which helped mediate in the crisis.

Masuku said police eventually agreed to let the teachers' trade union transport them either to their homes or to a church in Manzini where they would spend the night.

The protesters want the free-spending king to loosen his grip on power and allow multi-party democracy, and are also angry at government proposals to slash salaries for civil servants amid a severe budget crisis.

Unions called for the protests Tuesday to mark the 38th anniversary of the banning of political parties in a country where 70 per cent of the people live in dire poverty and 25 per cent of adults have HIV, the world's highest rate. On Tuesday, police also fired tear gas and water cannons, beat protesters with batons and arrested activists to break up the protest, according to organizers. At least 100 people were detained, including top labour and civil society leaders, unions said.

"The state has responded with extreme brutality and people feel unsafe. Many of our people are in police cells," said Vincent Dlamini, general secretary of the National Association of Public Servants and Allied Workers Union.
But most top union leaders who had been detained have since been released, said Dlamini, who was held from Sunday to Tuesday.

Two protest leaders were detained Wednesday, with one held under house arrest, according to Sipho Kunene, leader of the Swaziland Federation of Labour. Police patrolled Manzini Wednesday, arresting people in groups, including four teachers who were speaking to an AFP journalist in a cafe.

Edmonton Journal, Thurs Apr 14 2011

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