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African nations deploy envoys to Eswatini to help stem unrest

Southern African countries have deployed envoys to Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, to try to stem the unrest that saw one person killed and at least 80 people wounded by security forces in the latest wave of pro-democracy protests.

The demonstrations in the kingdom have flared up recently, months after authorities loyal to the country’s absolute monarch quashed an earlier round of demonstrations.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who currently chairs the security organ of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), ordered high-level envoys to fly to Eswatini on Wednesday to meet King Mswati III to discuss “security and political developments”.

The delegation includes Jeffrey Radebe, a former South African government minister and Candith Mashego-Dlamini, South Africa’s deputy minister of international relations and cooperation, as well as representatives from Botswana and Namibia. The envoys will be accompanied by SADC Executive Secretary Elias Magosi and other senior SADC officials.

Ramaphosa spoke with the king by telephone as the violence escalated, Pretoria’s high commission said in a statement.

Gunfire was heard into the night on Wednesday in the Eswatini capital Mbabane, and the civil servants’ union NAPSAWU said at least one man had been shot dead earlier in the day. “The army and the police killed one person at about 3pm (13:00 GMT) today,” Oscar Nkambule, the president of the union, told the AFP news agency.

Fifty of its members were taken to hospital in Mbabane, with another 30 admitted to hospital in the city of Manzini, including some with gunshot wounds, he added.

Hundreds of soldiers and police began fanning through both cities early in the day, firing tear gas at even small gatherings of people and unleashing volleys of rubber-coated bullets, AFP reported.

The kingdom again shut down the internet as images of the violence began circulating on social media. On Thursday, mobile operators were told to suspend access to Facebook and its messenger app until further notice.

“The business has implemented the directive and access to Facebook and Facebook Messenger has been suspended,” the Eswatini unit of MTN Group said in a statement. “We will continue engaging with the relevant stakeholders to minimise the impact and duration of the service disruption,” it added, without saying why it had been told to suspend access to the social media giant.

‘A recipe for war’

Nkambule told AFP that the violence began about 7am (05:00 GMT) and accused security forces of firing tear gas into a bus carrying protesting workers.

Videos shared online showed people jumping from the windows of a bus enveloped in white gas.

The internet went offline at noon, as students, transport workers and civil servants extended protests that have ground the tiny nation to a halt for more than two weeks.

“This is a recipe for war,” said Wonder Mkhonza, head of the Amalgamated Trade Union of Swaziland.

“The king is fighting for a war, he is making the country ungovernable by deploying the armed forces.”

An armoured police vehicle driving in the streets of Manzini [AFP]

The internet shutdown made it difficult to share information about the protests, or to alert the families of the wounded and dead.

Heavily armed soldiers and police were seen on the streets, while one Mbabane high school caught fire, sending plumes of smoke billowing over the city.

At least 29 people have now died this year as police clashed with protesters in some of the worst unrest in the southern African country’s history.

King Mswati III has ruled the landlocked nation since 1986 and owns shares in all of the country’s telecoms.

He is criticised for living a lavish lifestyle in one of the world’s poorest countries and is also accused of stifling political parties.

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