/ 1 September 2010

Mozambique protest death toll rises to seven

A demonstrator throws a tyre on a barricade during a protest at rising prices in Maputo on Wednesday. Grant Lee Neuenburg, Reuters
A demonstrator throws a tyre on a barricade during a protest at rising prices in Maputo on Wednesday. Grant Lee Neuenburg, Reuters

Police in Maputo opened fire on stone-throwing mobs who were protesting against rising food prices on Wednesday, killing seven people.

The United Nations noted that international food prices have risen to their highest in two years — a level that could see unrest spread.

Police had declared the marches illegal, saying no group sought permission to hold them. Word had been passed around for days in the former Portuguese colony in southeast Africa that there would be demonstrations.

Thousands of people — mostly young men — turned out. They lined the streets of Bagamoyo, a crowded, impoverished neighborhood just north of downtown Maputo. As they moved into the city centre, they burned tyres and looted shops and warehouses. Protests were also reported in other areas of the capital.

Horatio Antonio, a 45-year-old unemployed man, said he saw police open fire on protesters without provocation.

”People are angry because prices are going up: petrol, rice, water, electricity, everything,” Antonio said.

A witness described a woman running along the road to the airport after the riots, rubbing her stomach and saying, ”We are hungry, all Mozambicans are hungry.”

Police allegedly responded to the protests with gunfire. State television said police shot and killed seven people, including a girl of about six who was on her way home from school and another whose age and circumstances of death were not given.

Alice Caisane, a Maputo hospital medical chief, told state TV that four of the victims died at her hospital and 16 were treated for gunshot wounds. Earlier, witnesses saw an ambulance remove the apparently-lifeless body of a boy who had a severe head wound.

In the aftermath of violence, a boy of about 12 could be seen lying motionless on a Maputo street in a pool of blood. Police appealed for calm and said they had made an unspecified number of arrests. Youths were blocking streets and public transport drivers abandoned their vehicles in the streets.

Mozambican state television also reported the Maputo Airport had been closed. Most roads were impassible and shops in the city were closed for business.

The streets calmed down after the shootings, but tyres still smoldered and ambulance sirens wailed. A haze of smoke covered Maputo city.

Interior Minister Jose Pacheco told state television and Radio Maputo that the protests were illegal.

”The Mozambique constitution is clear that citizens have the right to strike but not the way this protest is going,” Pacheco said.

Finnish Finance Minister Jyrki Katainen was turned back at the Mozambique-South African border after the Mozambican government indefinitely postponed an official visit that was to have begun on Wednesday.

Mozambicans have seen the price of a loaf of bread rise by 25%, from four to five meticais (from about 11c to about 13c US) in the past year. Fuel and water costs also have risen.

The Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said on Wednesday its food price index shot up 5% between July and August, fueled in part by a drought in Russia that lifted the cost of wheat.

The FAO’s Abdulreza Abbassian said there are sharp differences between the current price situation and the spring of 2008, when high oil prices and growing demand for biofuels pushed world food stocks to their lowest levels since 1982. Stocks are much higher now and even while the forecast for world cereal production in 2010 has been lowered it is still expected to be the third highest on record.

Egypt has in recent months seen protests over rising food prices.

Worldwide, critics say bad government decisions are making shortages worse and accuse producers of colluding to push up prices.

Violent protests over high costs erupted in Mozambique in 2008, when global food prices jumped. Factors cited included a drop in the US wheat harvest and higher demand for crops to use in biofuels.

After a week of clashes between police and rioters that killed at least four people and seriously injured more than 100, the government cut fuel prices.

Mozambique was left in ruins by a civil war that broke out after independence from Portugal in 1975 and lasted for 17 years. Aids, outbreaks of diseases like cholera and frequent natural disasters strain the government’s resources. More than half the population lives in poverty, and Mozambique ranks 175th of 179 countries on the UN Human Development Index, a measure of progress that takes into account health and education levels as well as income.

Mozambique’s per capita GDP is just $802, compared to $9,757 in neighboring South Africa, where many Mozambicans have fled in search of work. –Sapa, AP