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Zimbabwe shuts down internet amid violent response to gas protests

"The world must quickly step in to remove this blanket of darkness that has been put on the country," one opposition activist said.
Image: A protest over the hike in fuel prices in Zimbabwe
A protest over the hike in fuel prices in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Tuesday.Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / AP

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe was under an internet blackout on Friday as authorities extended a communications ban to cover emails after days of deadly protests over price increases that pushed the cost of a gallon of gas to almost $13.

The government has said three people died during demonstrations that broke out on Monday after President Emmerson Mnangagwa raised fuel prices by 150 percent. Lawyers and activists say the toll was much higher and that security forces used violence and carried out mass arrests to quell the unrest.

Badly injured people streamed into a hospital in the capital after alleged assaults by security forces, the Associated Press reported.

Image: Protesters in Harare, Zimbabwe
Protesters take to the streets of Harare, Zimbabwe, on Monday.Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / AP Photo

Jacob Mafume, a spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, said he feared the blackout was a prelude to more violence.

"The total shutdown of the internet is simply to enable crimes against humanity," he told Reuters. "The world must quickly step in to remove this blanket of darkness that has been put on the country."

Authorities have yet to respond to the allegations of a crackdown by security forces, but increasing numbers of Zimbabweans believe Mnangagwa is falling back on the tactics of his predecessor Robert Mugabe in using intimidation to crush dissent.

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights has said it had treated 68 cases of gunshot wounds and 100-plus other cases of "assaults with sharp objects, booted feet, baton sticks" and more. Hungry residents of the capital, Harare, who ventured out seeking food reported being tear-gassed by police.

Image: Soldiers in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
Soldiers were stationed at entry points into the city of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, on Thursday.ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP - Getty Images

Mnangagwa has also failed to make good on pre-election pledges to kick-start the ailing economy, which is beset by high inflation and a currency shortage.

Gasoline in the economically shattered country is now the world's most expensive.

The government last weekend announced a price of $3.11 per liter (0.26 gallons) for diesel — or about $11.96 per gallon — and $3.33 per liter for gasoline ($12.81 per gallon).

Based on data from The site says Hong Kong had the highest price for a liter of gasoline on Jan. 7: $2.04 ($7.85 per gallon).

Authorities first cut off internet access on Tuesday, before briefly restoring some services on Wednesday. Friday's fuller shutdown also affected emails.

Zimbabwe's biggest mobile operator Econet Wireless said the government had ordered it to shut down services until further notice.

The High Court will hear a challenge to the shutdown on Monday, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said.

Image: Protesters are brought to a court in Harare, Zimbabwe
Protesters arrive at a court in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Thursday.AARON UFUMELI / EPA

Due to the shutdown, banks were providing only partial services and no cash machines were working, a Reuters witness said, while long lines formed at gas stations and shops.

Government officials were not immediately available for comment on the blackout.

However, Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said the demonstrations amount to "terrorism" and blamed the opposition. State Security Minister Owen Ncube thanked security forces for "standing firm."

"Our country is going through one of the most trying periods in its history," the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference said in a sweeping statement lamenting the government's "intolerant handling of dissent" and its failure to halt economic collapse.

The UK's minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin, has summoned Zimbabwe's ambassador to discuss "disturbing reports of use of live ammunition, intimidation and excessive force" against protesters.

The European Union in a statement late Thursday noted the "disproportionate use of force by security personnel" and urged that internet service be restored.