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Zimbabwe army orders shutdown of Harare city centre amid post-election unrest

Marco Longari, AFP | Two Zimbabwean soldiers wearing balaclavas shout orders to street vendors and money changers in the Copacabana market in Harare, on August 2, 2018.

Zimbabwe’s army ordered the shutdown of central Harare on Thursday as authorities came under increasing pressure to release results of the presidential election after a deadly crackdown on protesters.

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Soldiers were seen circulating in Harare and telling vendors and other people to leave the city centre by noon, while there a heavy police presence was observed around the headquarters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The country's landmark election – the first since veteran autocrat Robert Mugabe was ousted last year – turned bloody on Wednesday when troops opened fire on demonstrations against alleged electoral fraud, leaving at least six people dead, according to police.

The government blamed the MDC for inciting the unrest and vowed to enforce a security crackdown.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Thursday said he wanted an independent investigation into the killings, and that he is seeking to settle differences "peacefully".

Britain calls for ‘restraint’

The United Nations and former colonial power Britain expressed concern over the violence, and called for "restraint".

On Thursday, soldiers were on guard outside the headquarters of the ruling ZANU-PF party, while armoured personnel carriers, water cannon trucks and police anti-riot vans drove through Harare sporadically pausing outside the MDC headquarters.

In a late-night press conference on Wednesday, Home Affairs Minister Obert Mpofu said further protests would not be tolerated.

"The opposition ... have perhaps interpreted our understanding to be weak, and I think they are testing our resolve and I think they are making a big mistake," he said.

The MDC said the army had opened fire "for no apparent reason", killing unarmed civilians.

The presidential election race pits Mnangagwa, Mugabe's former ally in ZANU-PF, against opposition leader Nelson Chamisa of the MDC.

A rigged count?

In official results from the parliamentary election, also held on Monday, ZANU-PF won easily – suggesting Mnangagwa, 75, would be on course to retain the presidency.

But the MDC has said it won the elections outright and accused the government and Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) of rigging the count.

ZEC said the final results of the presidential race may not be known until Saturday.

“People are hoping that those results will finally come today, but it’s unlikely that they will be released any time soon,” said FRANCE 24 Zimbabwe correspondent

Monday's polls had been meant to turn the page on years of violence-marred elections and brutal repression of dissent after Mugabe's 37-year rule was ended by a brief military takeover in November.

But the mood quickly descended into anger as MDC supporters rallied in the city, chanting against the government and burning tyres in the streets.

“It’s a safe bet to say that – given all of these not so latent tensions, and given that there’s so much deeply embedded distrust, especially on the part of the opposition towards ZANU-PF – if it emerges that Mnangagwa is declared the winner, it’s hard not to imagine further protests,” said FRANCE 24 International Affairs Commentator Douglas Herbert.

‘Un-level playing field’

Mnangagwa had promised a free and fair vote after the military ushered him to power when Mugabe was forced to resign.

A credible and peaceful vote was meant to end Zimbabwe's international isolation and draw in foreign investment to revive the shattered economy.

European Union observers declared they found an "un-level playing field and lack of trust" in the election process. It called for transparency in the release of results.

"On many occasions – preparation, financing, media and hopefully not in the counting – it was advantageous for the ruling party," EU chief observer Elmar Brok told AFP.

Mnangagwa, Mugabe's former right-hand man, was the clear election front-runner, benefitting from tacit military support and control of state resources.

But Chamisa, a lawyer and pastor, sought to tap into the youth and urban vote.

Mnangagwa was allegedly involved in violence and intimidation during the 2008 elections when then opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of the run-off after attacks claimed the lives of at least 200 of his supporters.

If no presidential candidate wins at least 50 percent of the ballots cast in the first round, a run-off vote is scheduled for September 8.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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