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 one group of protesters and beat them with batons, an AFP reporter saw.
One woman was seen being carried into a Red Cross ambulance.
The protesters then regrouped, singing songs condemning police brutality. As the crowd swelled, police fired teargas and water cannons.
"People were just singing... 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.
Police said in a statement they had arrested 91 people for various offences, but rights groups said there had been 128 arrests.
- 'Worse than Mugabe' -
Dozens of police were deployed in running battles with protesters, many of them from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
The protest took place in 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 Friday's "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."
Friday's protests went ahead after police banned MDC plans for large-scale marches 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," he 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.
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.
- 'Long winter of discontent' -
The government, through the information ministry's Twitter account, described Friday's violence as "a few skirmishes".
"Normalcy has returned to Harare," it added
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.
"What you are seeing is just but a teaser, this is an introduction, we are going to be on the streets until the state responds," he said.
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
Amnesty International condemned Friday's police action saying it demonstrated "just how far the authorities will go to repress dissent".
The British embassy in Harare said it was "concerned at the images of the heavy-handed response to disperse crowds in Harare".
US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Tibor Nagy called on Zimbabwe's security forces to "respect human rights and to exercise restraint".