Maputo — A clash between supporters of the ruling Frelimo Party and of the former rebel movement Renamo degenerated into serious violence in the western Mozambican city of Tete on Sunday night.
The problem arose from a Frelimo decision to occupy a busy thoroughfare in the centre of Tete for the party's rally, closing its campaign for the municipal elections scheduled for next Wednesday.
Frelimo put large loudspeakers near the Zambezi Hotel on Eduardo Mondlane Avenue, and vehicles belonging to party members and sympathisers barred this street and Julius Nyerere Avenue. These are very busy streets, and blocking them would inconvenience many Tete residents, and not merely political activists.
Renamo members demanded the right to pass and the police, far from opening a passage for them, fired into the air, using real bullets, to disperse them. With the situation getting out of hand, Frelimo cancelled its rally. Senior officials in the party ordered the removal of the loudspeakers, and the Frelimo supporters were told to go home. The roads that had been barred to traffic were reopened.
Tete citizens told AIM it was a serious mistake by Frelimo to block access to two of the city's major thoroughfares, and the decision to cancel the rally was welcome.
But the decision came too late, as violence began to spread across central Tete. One unfortunate Frelimo supporter was beaten and his car was torched. This man, his face bloodied, standing beside the ruin of his vehicle, had no doubt who was responsible. "It was the Renamo men", he told the independent television station STV.
The police then laid siege to the Renamo Tete delegation. At a Maputo press conference on Monday morning, the spokesperson for the General Command of the Mozambican police, Inacio Dina, said the police went to the Renamo building to rescue three people whom Renamo had abducted, including a 13 year old child.
But neither the abductions nor the destruction of the Frelimo supporter's car could possibly justify the police violence shown on Mozambican television sets on Sunday evening. For the police did not simply detain Renamo members: STV showed that at least two police officers, as they were bundling detainees into a police vehicle, struck them repeatedly on the back and the buttocks with their truncheons.
As the footage showed, the Renamo members were unarmed, and were offering no resistance to arrest. Despite this the police beat them repeatedly.
Asked to explain this, Dina showed no sign of having seen the STV footage, and claimed the police had not used excessive or disproportionate violence. The situation was "out of control", he claimed. After torching the car, Renamo sympathisers had begun to roam the streets attacking anyone wearing symbols of other parties.
The riot police had been forced to use tear gas, Dina said, "in order to calm things down". His only explanation for the savage beatings shown on STV was the earlier torching of the car and the holding of people in the Renamo delegation against their will. But it is not known whether the people beaten outside the office had anything to with either of these crimes.
Dina said that that the police detained 12 people in Tete, but denied reports that the Renamo mayoral candidate, Ricardo Tomas, was one of them. He also denied claims that up to five people had died in the clashes.
He denied that the police were taking sides in the elections, and said that when political party sympathisers started to attack vehicles and throw stones at the police, they were no longer taking part in political activities, but were committing crimes.