Zimbabwe leader warns ‘heads will roll’ after violent crackdown of protesters

Zimbabwe’s president sent a warning to his security forces that “heads will roll” if the chaos and insubordination seen amid a week of economic crisis and brutal crackdown of protesters continued.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who cut short a high-profile fundraising visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to return on Tuesday, called the violence by security forces “unacceptable and a betrayal.”

In this Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 file photo, protestors gather near a burning tire during a demonstration over the hike in fuel prices in Harare, Zimbabwe. 2019 is already a busy year for internet shutdowns in Africa, with governments ordering cutoffs as soon as a crisis appears. Zimbabwe ordered a “total internet shutdown” in recent days during protests over a dramatic fuel price increase and a resulting deadly crackdown. 

In this Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 file photo, protestors gather near a burning tire during a demonstration over the hike in fuel prices in Harare, Zimbabwe. 2019 is already a busy year for internet shutdowns in Africa, with governments ordering cutoffs as soon as a crisis appears. Zimbabwe ordered a “total internet shutdown” in recent days during protests over a dramatic fuel price increase and a resulting deadly crackdown.  (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

He said he will investigate the reports of violence against demonstrators after the country’s human rights commission said people were “systematically tortured.”

“Chaos and insubordination will not be tolerated,” he wrote on Twitter. “Misconduct will be investigated. If required, heads will roll.”

Protests erupted last week after Mnangagwa, who once served as vice president to former dictator Robert Mugabe and is nicknamed "Crocodile", announced fuel prices would more than double. The dramatic increase made gasoline in Zimbabwe the most expensive in the world.

While activists and labor leaders called for people to stay at home for three days in protests, many took to the streets – with some looting in anger or desperation.

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The country’s military patrolled the streets, much as it did since the post-election violence in August. This time, however, people reported being hunted down in their homes by security forces and severely beaten.

Doctors said they have treated dozens of gunshot wounds. More than 600 people were arrested for alleged public disorder, with most denied bail.

Among those arrested was pastor and activist Evan Mawarire, who rose to prominence as a critic of Mugabe. He faces a possible 20-year prison sentence on a subversion charge, Sky News reported.

Mnangagwa's government has blamed the unrest on the opposition, despite witness accounts of security forces opening fire on crowds and killing or wounding bystanders, including a 17-year-old.

"Everyone has the right to protest, but this was not a peaceful protest," Mnangagwa said Tuesday, noting "wanton violence and cynical destruction."

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The government-backed Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission said eight people have been killed at the hands of the security forces who took to the streets this past week. It said the government had not learned its lesson from the August crackdown, adding that it should "ensure compensation for those that have been victims of military and police brutality.

The Zimbabwe government also blocked access to the internet and social media websites like Facebook and Twitter as well as the messaging service WhatsApp.

Zimbabwe's government had ordered an internet blackout in recent days as reports of abuses emerged, but the High Court on Monday ordered that full service be restored, calling the shutdown illegal and saying only the president has the authority to make such an order. The government alleges the internet has been used to organize the unrest.

In his Twitter remarks Tuesday, Mnangagwa called for “national dialogue” among all political parties as well as religious and civic leaders.

The opposition on Tuesday was skeptical of Mnangagwa's call for dialogue, describing it as a "gimmick to buy time."

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"Mnangagwa's overtures are always on Twitter. He knows where we are, yet he has chosen not to talk to us directly, he has never approached us, so this is another PR exercise," MDC spokesman Jacob Mafume said. "Why are soldiers still beating up people and the police arresting people if he is sincere?"

The Associates Press contributed to this report.