The protests went ahead after opposition plans for large-scale marches were banned by police on Thursday

Harare (AFP) - Riot police in Zimbabwe fired teargas and beat demonstrators on Friday during a crackdown on opposition supporters who have taken to Harare’s streets despite a protest ban.

Scores of people gathered in the capital’s Africa Unity Square to demonstrate against the country’s worsening economy in defiance of the ban, which was upheld by a court on Friday.

Supporters of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) sang songs condemning police brutality as officers fired teargas to disperse them.

Police also cornered a group of protesters and beat them with batons, with one woman carried into a Red Cross ambulance.

“People were just singing, people were happy, peacefully. Then they saw the police coming – they were encircling people, they were actually surrounding the supporters then they came closer to us and started beating people,” a 35-year-old protester who gave her name as Achise told AFP.

She also claimed said the police beat “an old woman, I heard she was seriously injured.”

“This is worse than during colonial times,” said a man who declined to be identified. “We aren’t armed but the police just beat us while we were sitting on the street”.

- ‘Long suffering people’ -

Anti-riot police in Zimbabwe's capital Harare, as the authorities crack down on opposition protests

Dozens of police and three water cannons were involved in running street battles with protesters in the square, which overlooks the country’s parliament and is where thousands gathered in November 2017 calling for then-president Robert Mugabe to step down during a military-led coup.

Friday’s protests went ahead after opposition plans for large-scale marches were banned by police late Thursday.

An MDC attempt to challenge the ban in court was then rejected.

“The court has said the demonstration should be off,” MDC spokesman Nkululeko Sibanda told AFP.

The party’s vice president Tendai Biti told reporters outside the high court that “we differ respectfully with the ruling”.

“The fascist regime has denied the right for Zimbabweans to demonstrate,” said Biti.

“There is no difference between (President Emmerson) Mnangagwa and Mugabe. We jumped from the frying pan into the fire after the November coup,” Biti told reporters outside the court.

Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa took over from long-time autocrat Robert Mugabe

Mnangagwa took over as president from long-time autocrat Mugabe and went on to win disputed July 2018 elections, vowing to revive Zimbabwe’s economy.

But Zimbabweans say things have gone from bad to worse, with people facing shortages of basic goods and skyrocketing prices.

- Five million face ‘starvation’ -

Around five million people – almost a third of the country’s 16 million population – are in need of aid and at least half of them are on the cusp of “starvation”, the World Food Programme (WFP) said this month.

Armed police had put up barricades across around the city early Friday in a bid to deter protesters, turning back cars on streets leading to the MDC’s party headquarters.

Long queues of traffic formed as the police searched cars and commuter buses for weapons. Riot police also searched pedestrians.

The government, through the information ministry’s twitter account, described the attacks on protesters as “a few skirmishes” adding that “normalcy has returned to Harare”.

“Security remains on high alert and deployed to ensure safety of the citizenry and security of property,” it said.

Protests in January against Mnangagwa's decision to hike fuel prices ended in deadly clashes with troops

Local rights group Heal Zimbabwe said in a series of tweets that police had rounded up scores of people in several of the city’s townships and surrounding neighbourhoods.

At least six opposition and rights activists were abducted and tortured by unidentified assailants in the days leading up to the protest, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, a coalition of 21 human rights groups.

Another MDC spokesman Daniel Molokele vowed “we are not backing down, we are going forward, the people of Zimbabwe are tired, they are fed up they want to end this long suffering so we are proceeding with the marches for a free Zimbabwe.”

Friday’s protests are the first since rallies in January against Mnangagwa’s decision to hike fuel prices that ended in deadly clashes with troops.

At least 17 people were killed and scores wounded after the army used force, including live ammunition, to end the demonstrations.