Zambian president's supporters beat up activists at church

Machete-wielding supporters of Zambia's ruling party beat up dozens of activists and a cleric at a church where they gathered after a planned street protest against high food prices was banned, an AFP reporter witnessed.

Around 60 civil society activists, opposition politicians and a cleric were singing hymns 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 them.

Bishop John Mambo, who is highly critical of the president, was badly wounded after he was beaten by men carrying axes and machetes at the Bible Gospel Church in Africa, AFP witnessed.

Mambo has been hospitalised but the nature of his injuries were not clear.

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.

Supporters of the ruling Patriotic Front, some clad in party T-shirts, stormed the church hall where late former 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 attacking the protestors. A cameraman for the state-run broadcaster (ZNBC) was also assaulted, while AFP's reporter fled through a window.

The activists had applied for a permit to demonstrate but this was rejected by police for security reasons. They moved their protest to the church as no clearance is required to hold church meetings.

Lusaka police commissioner Joyce Kasosa told AFP the police would have been willing to allow the demonstration, but the protesters' application letter was wrongly dated.

"I told them to ... do a fresh letter so that we can provide protection," she said. But "they went ahead and had their meeting today and it is regrettable that they have been attacked by unknown people."

Two weeks ago, police arrested 31 university students after they staged protests against the government's decision to scrap food subsidies. They were later freed.

BIGOCA church overseer Peter Ndlovu condemned the attack.

"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," he told reporters, referring to the attack on the bishop Mambo.

He urged Sata to fulfil his campaign promises.

"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.

One the organisers of the protest, Andrew Ntewewe of the Young African Leaders Initiative, also vowed not to be intimidated.

"We won't relent and this is just the beginning," 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.