Zanzibar Islamists fight police in leader protest: witnesses

STONE TOWN, Zanzibar (Reuters) - Supporters of a separatist Islamist group in Zanzibar looted shops and fought with police on Thursday after their leader disappeared, witnesses said, the third outbreak of violence this year on the Indian Ocean archipelago.

Supporters of Sheikh Farid Hadi, a leader of the Islamic Uamsho (Awakening) movement who has not been seen since Tuesday, threw stones at police and blocked roads with cut-down trees and burning tyres in island’s main town.

“Police are everywhere and firing teargas. There is nobody around town and the shops are closed. It’s a terrible situation,” Said Salleh, 40, a businessman from Zanzibar, told Reuters over the phone.

Witnesses said protesters looted shops and video footage showed a number of rioters holding machetes and hiding their faces with balaclavas.

The latest violence raised concerns of an escalation in religious tension in the predominantly Muslim island which is part of Tanzania but ruled by a semi-autonomous secular government.

Analysts said the Uamsho group has been gaining popularity following the disenchantment of supporters of Zanzibar’s main opposition Civic United Front (CUF) party after its decision to form a government of national unity with the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party.

Fighting between police and Hadi’s supporters, mostly youths, started on Wednesday, a day after the Uamsho leader disappeared.

“Our leader, Sheikh Farid, has been missing since Tuesday night and we don’t know where he is as we speak,” Uamsho secretary Abdallah Saidi told Reuters by telephone.

“The fact that the police have quickly issued a statement denying any information about Sheikh Farid’s disappearance is very suspicious and has made us think perhaps they were indeed responsible,” he said.

Zanzibar police commissioner Mussa Ali Mussa said police were trying to establish Hadi’s whereabouts.

Mussa also said Uamsho supporters had ambushed and hacked to death a policeman as he was walking home from guard duty on Wednesday evening. Saidi denied the group’s involvement in the attack.

“We are not involved in any criminal acts. We have all along been law-abiding citizens and leaders of Uamsho have not issued any statement to incite our supporters,” he said.

At least 10 suspects have been arrested in connection with the violence, police spokesman Mohamed Mhina said.

Witnesses said shops across the capital Stone Town remained closed for the second day in a row and residents stayed indoors, a scene reminiscent of 10 days of violent clashes between Uamsho supporters and police in May.

Back then riot police clashed with Uamsho supporters who had gathered at a mosque to pray for victims of a ferry disaster that killed 145 people.

In May Uamsho supporters set fire to two churches and clashed with police over the arrest of senior members of the movement.

Reporting by Fumbuka Ng’wanakilala in Dar es Salaam; Additional reporting and writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Toby Chopra