Swazi police guard square to prevent protests

Police in Swaziland were rounding up activists and detaining people on the streets to prevent pro-democracy protests Tuesday in sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy.

In recent weeks, an online campaign has tried to rally support for Tuesday's protests, which come exactly 38 years after the current Swazi king's father, King Sobhuza II, banned political parties and abandoned the country's constitution.

Tuesday, more than 150 Swazi police guarded the square where pro-democracy protesters had planned to demonstrate in the country's economic hub, Manzini.

Police spokeswoman Wendy Hleta said the union leaders were being questioned over threats to overthrow the government they allegedly made to foreign media.

Outside the square, uniformed and plainclothes police kept watch on the streets in southern Africa's usually peaceful tiny mountain kingdom.

COSATU, South Africa's biggest trade union federation, said police arrested seven labor leaders Tuesday morning. With political parties banned, the labor movement has become a key platform for pro-democracy activists.

Tuesday's arrests prompted more than 700 teachers to gather at their center in Manzini, chanting and singing in protest. There was a standoff between teachers and police, who demanded the teachers disperse, said Simantele Mmema, spokeswoman for the Swaziland National Association of Teachers.

Thuli Makama, director of the Swaziland Legal Assistance Center, said police are blocking people and buses from traveling between towns.

"They are in every corner of the country," she said.

Several reporters were detained and released Tuesday and prevented from reporting on the protests. Police spokeswoman Hleta said foreign journalists were prevented from working because they did not have accreditation.

Activists said Swaziland's pro-democracy protests were inspired by demonstrations in North Africa, where protesters in places like Egypt and Libya demanded their longtime leaders step down.

An anti-monarchy movement has gained momentum since the government declared a budget crisis and proposed freezing civil service wages. But many Swazis revere the monarchy, even if they differ with the current king, portrayed by activists as autocratic and uncaring in a country suffering high rates of poverty and AIDS.