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Swazi police fire water cannons to stop protests

Police in Swaziland fired water cannons and tear gas, beat people with batons and arrested activists 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.

Simantele Mmema, spokeswoman for the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, said Tuesday that police fired water cannons and tear gas and beat people with their batons to disperse more than 1,000 workers who were singing and chanting peacefully in a teacher's training center in Manzini, the country's economic hub.

Police spokeswoman Wendy Hleta said she could not confirm police fired on protesters at the training center, but said police fired tear gas elsewhere in Manzini after people threw stones that injured two officers.

"The situation almost got out of control," Hleta said. "They were compelled to shoot tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd."

More than 150 Swazi police guarded a square where pro-democracy protesters had planned to demonstrate in Manzini. Outside the square, uniformed and plainclothes police kept watch on the streets in southern Africa's usually peaceful tiny mountain kingdom.

Swazi activists said police arrested nine labor and pro-democracy leaders Tuesday. With political parties banned, the labor movement has become a key platform for pro-democracy activists.

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

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.

Activists said police were also barring students at the University of Swaziland from leaving the campus.

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.

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Associated Press writer Jenny Gross contributed to this report from Johannesburg.