MBABANE (Reuters) – The government of eSwatini has called in the army to restore order after days of violent protests against its absolute monarch, the acting prime minister said on Thursday.
The southern African nation has since the weekend seen sporadic demonstrations against King Mswati III, some marred by rioting and looting. But most towns have been quiet since periodic Internet blackouts were imposed on Wednesday, witnesses said.
Mswati’s detractors accuse him of being an autocrat – a charge he denies – and of using a poor country’s public money to fund a luxurious lifestyle spread over several palaces housing himself and his fifteen wives.
The king has hardly been seen in public since recovering from COVID-19 in February, although his government denies reports that he fled abroad after protests on Monday.
“While we continue to advocate…the right to protest, we cannot condone the attacks on people and their property. The … riots are also in violation of COVID-19 regulations,” Acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku said in a statement.
“We have had to call in the army to protect critical national infrastructure and enforce the COVID-19 regulations. (But) there has been no martial law,” he added.
Security forces have dispersed demonstrators with tear gas, gunshots and even low-flying helicopters, prompting diplomats and rights group to urge restraint. A curfew has been imposed from 6 p.m. until 5 a.m.
“We urge the government to exercise restraint and also maintain the utmost respect for human rights,” the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday. “The United States strongly supports … freedom of peaceful assembly.”
Neighbour South Africa also called for restraint and “meaningful dialogue,” while Amnesty International said the government had “systematically crushed freedom of expression”.
The former British protectorate periodically witnesses crackdowns on dissent, such as the arrest of opposition leaders and activists in 2019.
(Reporting by Lunga Masuku, Writing and additional reporting by Tim Cocks, Editing by Angus MacSwan)