BLANTYRE, Malawi (AP) — Malawi's president threatened opposition leaders Friday, accusing them of treason and blaming them for the deaths of at least 18 people this week at anti-government demonstrations.
The violent response from President Bingu wa Mutharika's security forces prompted international condemnation from the United States, European Union and former ruler Britain.
In a fiery speech Friday, Mutharika accused his estranged deputy Joyce Banda, opposition leader John Tembo and two civil society leaders of being behind the demonstrations.
"The blood of these people who have died is on you," he said. "Let their spirits haunt you at night."
Mutharika said his patience was worn out: "This time I'll go after you! Even if you hide in holes I'll smoke you out!" he warned. The comments came a day after he said protesters were "being led by Satan."
Mutharika first came to power in a 2004 election, and was easily re-elected in May 2009. But tensions have been growing this year over worsening shortages of fuel and foreign currency. High unemployment alongside a deteriorating economic situation also threaten to reverse development gains made in the early years of his presidency.
This week, protesters attacked businesses belonging to the president's political allies. Looters in the capital of Lilongwe targeted shops belonging to ruling party officials, witnesses said.
Elections are not due again in Malawi until 2014, and Mutharika is barred from seeking a third term.
Malawian political commentator Fidelis Edge Kanyongolo says the events of the last three days have been a wake-up call for the president's administration.
"Government was surprised by the scale of demonstrations," he told The Associated Press. "They had been lured into a false sense of security by their large parliamentary majority... It would be difficult to continue with business as usual with this week's events."
A heavy police and military presence remained in place on the streets of Malawi's major cities Friday, as mourners gathered to bury some of the dead.
Seven of the protesters killed in the northern city of Mzuzu during Wednesday's violence were laid to rest Friday. But local authorities first tried to block the service, saying Mutharika had ordered them to stop the group funeral to avoid further violence.
Britain's Minister for Africa appealed to the Malawian president to rein in his security forces and loyalists.
"The ongoing violence and reprisals by elements connected to President Mutharika's Democratic Progressive Party underline the concern that the U.K. has expressed about the state of democratic governance and human rights in Malawi," Henry Bellingham said in a statement. "The rights of free assembly and expression guaranteed under the Malawian Constitution must be respected."
Britain already has indefinitely suspended aid to the country, citing concerns about economic management and a crackdown on human rights. Malawi gained its independence from Britain in 1964.
Mutharika, a 77-year-old former World Bank economist, had won widespread praise from international institutions and donor governments for pushing through economic reforms and clamping down on corruption. But he also has alienated many former allies including his predecessor, whom he accused of plotting to assassinate him.
Malawi has enjoyed relative peace and stability in the past decade and may be better known as the place where Madonna has adopted two children and launched a development project for orphans. Madonna on Wednesday urged officials to find a peaceful solution to the unrest.
Tay reported from Johannesburg.