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Malawi Opposition Accuses Police of Using Excessive Force to End Election Rally - 2004-02-23


An opposition coalition in Malawi is accusing the police of using excessive force to break up an election rally. Meanwhile, the country's president has abruptly dissolved his cabinet before elections scheduled for May.

Riot police allegedly fired tear gas and live ammunition into a crowd to break up an opposition election rally Sunday in the city of Blantyre. A local hospital says two people have been treated for gunshot wounds and are in stable condition.

The opposition group holding the rally, known as the Mgwirizano Coalition, is accusing the police of overreacting and using excessive force to suppress the opposition.

Police say the mayor of Blantyre had banned the rally, which was addressed by presidential candidate Gwanda Chakuamba. But the opposition coalition says the rally of about 5,000 people was legal because it had obtained a high court order allowing the event to go ahead.

Meanwhile, Malawian President Bakili Muluzi suddenly dissolved his cabinet without explanation. The president has to dissolve both his cabinet and parliament before the elections, but he was not expected to do so until at least the end of March.

It is not clear whether Mr. Muluzi will appoint a new cabinet before the election.

One theory being floated by some political analysts is that the president wants to appoint more members of the opposition Alliance for Democracy to his cabinet. President Muluzi's party, the United Democratic Front, planned to sign a pact with the opposition party, creating a formal alliance for the election. The old cabinet already had several members from the opposition.

Several candidates are vying for the presidency, as Mr. Muluzi is stepping down after two terms in office. He came to power in 1994, following Malawi's first democratic elections.