By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE (Reuters) - Protesters barricaded roads and burned tyres in Zimbabwe's capital Harare on Monday, two days after President Emmerson Mnangagwa raised the price of fuel by 150 percent in response to the worst economic crisis in a decade.
Police fired tear gas to contain unrest in several Harare suburbs and the second largest city Bulawayo, with the Human Rights Forum, a grouping of local rights groups, saying it had received reports of five people having sustained gunshot wounds.
Protesters chanted anti-Mnangagwa songs in Harare's crowded Mbare suburb, while riot police stood at a distance to block demonstrators marching into the city centre.
Riot police patrolled downtown Harare as army helicopters circled above. Companies closed early while schools called parents to pick their children, fearing violence.
Central Harare was deserted by 4 p.m. Commuters walked home from the city centre because there were no public taxis.
"I am stranded in town now and I have no idea how I am going to go home," resident Leeroy Kabanga told Reuters.
Low-cost African airline Fastjet cancelled its remaining flights to and from Zimbabwe on Monday due to the unrest.
Mnangagwa announced the sharp hike in fuel prices on Saturday to protect the country from a shortage of foreign currency. He defended the decision in Moscow on Monday, where he arrived at the start of a five-nation trip abroad despite expectations he might cancel it in the face of the unrest.
"Zimbabwe is going through both political and economic reforms and these do not come easily. It will take time for things to settle and results to be shown," he told reporters in Moscow. He said the fuel price hike was necessary because local fuel was the cheapest in the region.
Cash shortages have plunged the economy into disarray, threatening widespread social unrest and undermining Mnangagwa's efforts to win back foreign investors sidelined under Robert Mugabe, whose 40-year rule ended in a coup more than a year ago.
"In normal circumstances the president should have cancelled the trip or booked a flight back home to deal with a very urgent situation, but it could be that he has absolute confidence that his deputy is in charge," said Eldred Masunungure, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.
Everyday life is getting increasingly tough with the prices of basic goods spiralling and medical supplies in short supply.
Motorists wait for hours to fill up at fuel stations where soldiers are often deployed to break up fights over who is next in line.
News of the fuel price increase was greeted with shock in Zimbabwe where unemployment is above 80 percent. The government sets fuel prices via the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Agency.
Hundreds of residents in Harare townships, all opposition strongholds, protested by setting tyres alight and blocking roads with stones. The main labour union called for a three-day stay-at-home strike starting Monday.
FEAR OF VIOLENCE
The authorities are keen to avoid a repeat of post-election violence in August in which six people were killed after the army intervened.
Home Affairs Minister Cain Mathema said police had deployed in suburbs and central business district to conduct patrols and surveillance, stop citizens and search them.
In Bulawayo, police fired teargas to disperse hundreds of protesters outside the High Court, according to video footage from the Centre For Innovation & Technology, an independent news service. The news service also showed footage of people looting a shop in a city suburb.
Zimbabwe, which abandoned its own currency in 2009 after it was wrecked by hyperinflation in favour of the greenback, plans to introduce a new currency in the next 12 months as the next measure to end the cash crisis.
But Zimbabweans are still traumatised by hyperinflation, which hit 500 billion percent in 2008 and left the local currency worthless, wiping out savings and pensions. Annual inflation reached 31 percent in November, the highest in a decade.
Businesses and civil servants are demanding to be paid in dollars. Zimbabwe's largest brewing company Delta Beverages, part-owned by Anheuser-Busch Inbev, threatened to accept only U.S. dollars as payment but later reversed its decision after government-led negotiations.
The government on Monday postponed wage negotiations with civil service unions, who are planning a nationwide strike from Jan. 22 to press for U.S. dollar pay.
(Additional reporting by Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Editing by Joe Brock, Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)