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South African unionists deported in Swazi protest crackdown

Swazi police Wednesday fired teargas and rubber bullets to break up swelling protests against King Mswati III, activists said, while two South African union leaders were deported for trying to address the crowds.

The clashes erupted on the third consecutive day of protests against Mswati, Africa’s last absolute monarch, who is accused of bankrupting the impoverished nation’s treasury while enjoying a lavish life with his 13 wives.

Protests have rattled this usually tightly controlled nation since April, with labour unions leading calls for democratic reforms and better management of the economy.

Violence broke out in the town of Sitheki when Zingiswa Losi, deputy president of South Africa’s powerful Cosatu labour federation, moved to speak to the protesters, activists there told AFP by telephone.

“When Cosatu representatives got up to speak, police gathered to remove them. The crowd tried to protect them. There were gunshots (of rubber bullets), teargas,” said Sibongile Mazibuko, head of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers.

Activist Mary Pais da Silva, who witnessed the scene, said protesters threw stones at police.

“Fights broke out,” she said. “Police used rubber bullets. Several marchers were arrested.”

Another activist, Swazi trade unionist Sibusiso Lushaba, said he was beaten, arrested and released an hour later.

“They beat me with batons and kicked me and paraded me all around town. When they took me to police headquarters they did not charge me with anything,” he said.

Police spokeswoman Wendy Hleta said one police officer was hospitalised after the clash, while two South African women were being deported.

“They have opted to go back to South Africa because they have been talked to that this is a Swazi issue,” she said.

Cosatu identified the other woman as Zanele Mathebula, another top official in the union.

Hleta denied that rubber bullets or teargas had been fired, saying police had used a stun grenade to break up the crowd.

“We are trying by all means to control the situation using verbal communication… and they are trying to push the police to be violent,” she said.

Cosatu has vocally supported the protests in Swaziland, and criticised South Africa’s move to grant a $343 million (237 million euro) bail-out to the kingdom.

Meanwhile, in Swaziland’s main city Manzini, about 1,000 protesters took to the streets for a second day, but were blocked by police from marching to the city centre, where protest leaders wanted to make speeches.

“We want to go to the people. We don’t want to speak to buildings,” teachers’ union official Muzi Simelane told AFP.

Swaziland fell into crisis when revenues from a regional customs union, the kingdom’s main source of income, plunged 60 percent and left the government battling to keep schools and clinics running.

International lenders have refused to help unless Swaziland makes deep reforms, including cuts to the public wage bill — a proposal that has infuriated unions.

Until this year, public shows of dissent were rare in Swaziland, where the palace tolerates little criticism.

Protests on April 12 were also dispersed by riot police with batons, teargas and water canons, but authorities had allowed marches to proceed in the capital on Monday and in Manzini on Tuesday.