Supporters of Zambia's ruling party beat up dozens of activists who had moved their protest against high food prices to a church on Friday after their planned demonstration was banned.
Around 60 civil society activists, opposition politicians and a cleric were singing hymns and praying inside a church in Lusaka's Matero slum area when about 100 bussed-in supporters of President Michael Sata stormed the premises and started assaulting everyone.
Bishop John Mambo, who is highly critical of the president, was badly wounded after he was beaten with axe handles and machetes at the Bible Gospel Church in Africa (BIGOCA), an AFP reporter witnessed. The cleric has been hospitalised.
The activists had applied for a permit to demonstrate but was rejected by police over security reasons. They were therefore forced to move their protest to the church as no clearance is required to hold church meetings.
The government's decision two weeks ago to scrap subsidies for staples like corn meal has sparked an outcry in the country where 60 percent of the population live in poverty, with an average income of $3.45 a day.
The move was aimed at saving public funds. Lusaka also claimed that the subsidies were not reaching the poorest, but instead benefitting middle men.
Wielding machetes and axe handles, supporters of the ruling Patriotic Front, some clad in party T-shirts, stormed the church hall where the former and late president Frederick Chiluba used to worship.
"Why are you here and what is your problem you people? You will be sorted out," a young government supporter who appeared inebriated, was heard shouting.
They immediately started beating up the protestors. A cameraman for the state-run broadcaster (ZNBC) was also assaulted, while the AFP reporter fled through a window.
Two weeks ago, police arrested 31 university students who had been detained on the president's orders after they staged protests against the government's decision to scrap food subsidies. They were later freed.
BIGOCA church overseer Peter Ndlovu told reporters after the attack that the church was a place of worship and should be respected.
"This is a place of worship and people should not come here with axes to kill worshippers. Look at how my brother has been harmed, it's unacceptable" said Ndlovu.
He urged Sata to fulfil his campaign promises.
"The man should just fulfil the promise. We are not against him but we want things to be done correctly."
Michael Kaingu, vice president of Zambia's main opposition party Movement for Multiparty Democracy, who was accompanied by a lawmaker, was also inside the church, but escaped unharmed.
"They came into power through deceit," charged Kaingu. "We won't be cowed by their arrests and harassment," he said.
Sata swept to power in 2011 on a populist vote, promising to end poverty, but his new move to scrap food subsidies could hit the poor the hardest and fuel inflation.
In 1990, then president Kenneth Kaunda's government was rocked by food riots, which led to his ousting in elections the following year.