JOHANNESBURG — Swaziland police cracked down on pro-democracy protests Thursday, arresting union leaders and stepping up armed patrols to disperse planned gatherings in the capital, Mbabane.
The protests were to mark 39 years since political parties were banned under a "state of emergency," which continues today.
Many Swazis are frustrated with living under an absolute monarchy, the last in Africa, and in the past year have stepped up their demands for democratic rule.
Protests have been fueled by a continuing economic crisis in Swaziland. While ordinary people are suffering, King Mswati III and his 13 wives have apparently remained unscathed by the country's severe financial problems.
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The government obtained a court order late Tuesday to block the demonstrations, which were to be held for four days starting Wednesday, ahead of birthday celebrations for the king.
Heavily armed soldiers drove a convoy of vehicles through the capital, Mbabane, on Thursday in an apparent show of force, the independent Times of Swaziland reported.
The army vehicles, loaded with gun-toting soldiers and with sirens blaring, drove through city streets not stopping at traffic lights, the newspaper said.
"For moments the city center came to a standstill as shoppers, tenants, commuters, employees and loafers stood transfixed by the rare sight," the Times reported.
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Mbabane was deluged with police and other security officials who stopped and questioned anyone wearing a red shirt, the color associated with trade unions, Agence France-Presse reported.
Sipho Kunene, deputy president of the recently banned Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (Tucoswa), and deputy general secretary Muzi Mhlanga were arrested, AFP said.
The head of the nation's teachers union was also arrested, the Associated Press reported.
Journalist Louise Redvers, reporting from Swaziland, tweeted that the protests were eventually canceled amid the heavy security presence in Mbabane.
Protests called off for today - "not a victory for the police but proof to the international community how this gov operates" #Swaziland
— Louise Redvers (@LouiseRedvers) April 12, 2012
A statement issued by Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini said "national security agents have been instructed to protect life and property against any protest action planned anywhere as it has been declared illegal by Cabinet," the Times reported.
"No illegal protest action will be allowed to take place as announced by certain individuals anytime and anywhere in the country, including this week," the statement said.
Two South African TV journalists were detained in Swaziland while traveling into the country on Wednesday, to cover the marches, the e.tv network said.
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King Mswati this week declared that Swaziland does not have to respond to international criticism.
"We hear people talking a lot of things about Swaziland. At one point someone came and asked me as to why we were silent and not responding to what was being said," he said during a church service, according to the Times. "We will only pray for them. One day they will see the light."
"No one can touch this country as long as we have God on our side," the king added.
Swaziland last month said it would make it illegal to criticize King Mswati III on Facebook and Twitter, in an apparent attempt to curb criticism of the king after a year in which he faced unprecedented protests stoked by the economic crisis.
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