A protester lies on the ground after being beaten by police

Harare (AFP) - Riot police in Zimbabwe on Friday fired teargas and beat demonstrators who defied a protest ban, as the opposition accused President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government of surpassing Robert Mugabe’s regime in brutality.

Scores of people gathered in a square in the capital Harare to demonstrate against the country’s worsening economy, despite massive police deployment and a ban upheld by a court the same morning.

Police cornered a group of protesters and beat them with batons, an AFP reporter saw.

One woman was seen being carried into a Red Cross ambulance.

A man clutching the national flag walked with other protesters, demonstrating against the cost of living and lack of essential goods

The protestors then regrouped, singing songs condemning police brutality. As the crowd swelled, police fired teargas.

“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 said police beat “an old woman”.

“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”.

- ‘Worse than Mugabe’ -

Dozens of police and three water cannon were deployed in running battles with protesters, many of them from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Protesters rushed for cover as police fired tear gas

Africa Unity Square, overlooking the Zimbabwean parliament, is where crowds gathered in November 2017 to demand Mugabe, the country’s long-time autocratic ruler, step down.

MDC leader Nelson Chamisa slammed the “brutal” clampdown as even worse than during Mugabe’s era.

“We not only have an illegitimate regime in this country, we have a rogue regime,” Chamisa said. Seven people suffered serious injuries, including a woman, he said.

“What is clear is that it’s turning out that the regime in Harare is far worse than the Mugabe regime. One would be persuaded to think that Mugabe is back, but then you realise this it’s not Mugabe even at his best.

A protester holds a bag of corn meal with a price written on it. Soaring inflation and shortage of basic goods have fuelled anger

“Mugabe had become a toddler when it comes to the kind of brutality that we are seeing… in terms of just the magnitude of abuse and heavy handedness”.

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

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

The party’s vice president, Tendai Biti, told reporters outside the High Court: “The fascist regime has denied the right for Zimbabweans to demonstrate”.

“There is no difference between Mnangagwa and Mugabe. We jumped from the frying pan into the fire after the November coup,” Biti said.

Supported by the military, Mnangagwa took over from Mugabe before winning disputed elections in July 2018.

He vowed to revive Zimbabwe’s sickly economy. But many Zimbabweans say the situation has worsened, with shortages of basic goods and skyrocketing prices.

- Millions need aid -

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) warned this month.

Police formed a barricade to prevent protesters from entering Africa Unity Square

Armed police had erected barricades across around the city early Friday in a bid to deter protesters and searched cars, buses and pedestrians for weapons.

The government, through the information ministry’s Twitter account, described Friday’s violence as “a few skirmishes.”

“Normalcy has returned to Harare”, although “security remains on high alert and deployed,” it added.

Chamisa said police had rounded up at least 80 people in several of the city’s townships.

Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, a coalition of 21 human rights groups, on Thursday said six opposition and rights activists had been abducted and tortured by unidentified assailants ahead of the demonstration. Chamisa said the number had grown to 18.

Chamisa vowed to push on with more protests.

Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa took over from his former boss, long-time autocrat Robert Mugabe

“What you are seeing is just but a teaser, this is an introduction, we are going to going to be on the streets until the state responds.

“This is long winter of discontent, a long winter of expression of ourselves , It’s not going to be a walk in the park, it’s not going to be instant coffee,” said Chamisa.

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 crush the demonstrations.