Malawi's government yesterday sent troops into cities as President Bingu wa Mutharika threatened to "smoke out" those opposed to his strong-armed rule after an unprecedented wave of protests left 18 people dead.
Demonstrations over economic mismanagement and chronic fuel shortages escalated into pitched street battles this week, with police firing tear gas and live ammunition at protesters across the country, earning strong rebukes from the United States and Britain.
"In light of continued rioting and rumours of retaliation, we urge restraint from both sides," the US embassy in Pretoria said in a statement.
But as mourners buried seven Malawians killed during the protests, Mr Mutharika issued a warning to those seeking to oust him: "If you go back to the streets, I will smoke you out. Enough is enough."
Mr Mutharika, a former World Bank economist, was elected in 2004 and oversaw a period of strong economic growth. But he relied heavily on foreign aid, and his management of the economy began to unravel earlier this year when the British ambassador was expelled from Lilongwe after he was quoted in a leaked diplomatic cable as saying Mr Mutharika was "autocratic and intolerant of criticism".
Britain retaliated by expelling the ambassador in London and freezing $550m in much-needed aid. The Foreign Office has repeatedly raised concerns about economic mismanagement and a crackdown on human rights.
Britain's Minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, said in a statement yesterday: "The ongoing violence and reprisals by elements connected to President Mutharika's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) underline the concern that the UK has expressed about the state of democratic governance and human rights in Malawi. The rights of free assembly and expression guaranteed under the Malawian Constitution must be respected."
Protests were held across the country, with 10 people reported killed in Karonga and Mzuzu in the north, where people ransacked DPP offices. Eight people were killed in the capital, Lilongwe, and the financial hub, Blantyre, where looters targeted shops and businesses belonging to DPP officials. At least 200 people have been arrested.