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Swazi forces fire at crowds to halt anti-king protest

MANZINI, Swaziland (Reuters) - Swazi police fired rubber bullets on Tuesday to break up protests against the state’s absolute monarchy, which has been widely criticised for human rights abuses and mismanaging a weak economy.

A policewoman (R) yawns as she watches protesters take part in a march in Mbabane, the Swaziland capital, March 18, 2011. Thousands of Swazis marched on the prime minister's office on Friday in a rare protest to demand the resignation of the tiny southern African kingdom's government. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Activists said police arrested scores of people who were planning an uprising against King Mswati III similar to the ones that toppled the leaders of the North African states of Tunisia and Egypt.

Police also fired tear gas and deployed water cannon in the main commercial city of Manzini to head off any mass protest, witnesses said.

“The situation almost got out of control. They were compelled to shoot tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd,” South Africa’s SAPA news agency quoted Swazi police spokeswoman Wendy Hleta as saying.

Police have blocked roads into Manzini, attacked teachers, closed universities and arrested labour leaders to try to keep a lid on the protests, the Swaziland Solidarity Network activist group said.

“The people are leading themselves,” spokesman Lucky Lukhele told Reuters, saying he expected the protests to continue.

The U.S. Embassy in the capital Mbabane expressed concern about the crackdown, saying in a statement: “The U.S. calls on the Government of Swaziland to respect the rights of all its citizens to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.”

Swaziland, with a population of about 1.4 million sandwiched between regional economic power South Africa and war-scarred Mozambique, is one of Africa’s poorest states, with an unemployment rate of about 40 percent. About seven in 10 people live below the national poverty level.

In contrast, King Mswati III has 14 wives and a personal fortune of $200 million, according to Forbes magazine. The king’s wealth is equal to about 8 percent of the state’s GDP.

Swaziland is running out of money due to a 60 percent decline in revenue from regional trade and by June it may not be able to service its debt and pay civil servants’ salaries.

Swaziland has little developed industry. A drop in revenue from the Southern African Customs Union, 85 percent of which is generated by South Africa, has aggravated the financial crisis.

In March, about 2,000 activists took Mbabane’s streets in a rare protest and called for the resignation of the government who they blame for the state’s financial woes.

The U.S. State Department, in its annual report on human rights issued on April 8, listed a long catalogue of rights abuses in Swaziland.

“Human rights problems included inability of citizens to change their government; extrajudicial killings by security forces; mob killings; police use of torture, beatings, and excessive force on detainees; police impunity; arbitrary arrests and lengthy pre-trial detention,” it said.