JOHANNESBURG | Forces loyal to Swaziland’s King Mswati III on Tuesday used water cannons and fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at pro-democracy demonstrators to break up a protest against sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch.
Several thousand teachers, students and trade unionists had attempted a street march in Manzini, Swaziland’s second- biggest city, and many of them were arrested and held in custody late Tuesday.
Swazi police spokeswoman Wendy Hleta said that officers had been provoked when marchers threw stones at them. “They were compelled to shoot tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd,” she told the Associated Press.
Lucky Lukhele, spokesman for the Swaziland Solidarity Network that helped coordinate the protest from its office in neighboring South Africa, told The Washington Times that at least 300 people had yet to be released.
“The police crackdown is all inclusive and is no longer targeting obvious participants,” Mr. Lukhele said. “Ordinary people on the streets have also fallen victim.”
Officials stopped buses moving between towns, and cordoned off schools and the University of Swaziland to prevent teachers and students from leaving the campus.
Tuesday saw the latest in a series of protests that Swazi activists say are inspired by uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Protesters have demanded the abdication of King Mswati lll, whose 14 wives and lavish lifestyle have drawn criticism in a country where an estimated 60 percent of its 1.2 million people live on less than $2 per day.
The 43-year-old king has several palaces and a fleet of luxury cars, and his wives are accused of taking frequent shopping trips to Europe.
Swaziland has the world’s highest HIV infection rate, with more than a quarter of the population infected by the disease.
Meanwhile, an economic turndown in the kingdom has led to budget cuts and a threat to reduce the wages of government workers.
Tuesday’s demonstrations were largely confined to Manzini and did not spread to the royal capital of Lobamba or the administrative capital of Mbabane. The date, April 12, was chosen to commemorate the issuance of a 1973 decree in which Mswati’s father, King Sobuza ll, banned all political parties.
Swaziland’s monarch chooses the prime minister and has control over all political, legal and diplomatic appointments.
On Monday, the State Department cautioned against travel to Swaziland, and late Tuesday a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy at Mbabane called for restraint.