ZANZIBAR, Tanzania (AP) — A major opposition party in Tanzania is accusing police of shooting dead at least seven citizens amid unrest over alleged fraud on the eve of the country’s presidential election.
The ACT Wazalendo party on Tuesday also said police in the semi-autonomous island region arrested its Zanzibar presidential candidate, Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad. A police official in Zanzibar city, Mohammed Hassan Haji, confirmed the arrest to The Associated Press but gave no details.
Police in Pemba city, however, did not comment on the ACT Wazalendo allegation that police opened fire on citizens there Monday evening on the eve of advance voting in the region. Tanzania's inspector general of police, Simon Sirro, later denied any deaths to reporters and said some residents had been throwing rocks and 42 were arrested.
ACT Wazalendo at first said three people were killed but Pavu Juma Abdalla, the party's deputy secretary for human rights, told The Associated Press that the toll had risen to seven. She said more than 100 people had been arrested.
“I think it is going to be a very terrible situation,” she said.
The army was distributing ballot boxes at polling stations designated for advance voting on Monday evening when "Citizens in areas surrounding the polling stations have claimed that these boxes contain ballots already pre-marked,” the party's statement said. “They accordingly sought to prevent these ballot boxes from being transferred to the polling stations.”
Police at first responded with tear gas and the live ammunition, the statement said.
The ACT Wazalendo presidential candidate in Zanzibar, Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad, condemned the shootings. He was then arrested Tuesday morning at a polling station as he went to vote, the party said.
“Zanzibar lives matter,” the statement said, calling for his immediate release.
There was a heavy police and military presence in Zanzibar on Tuesday, with many roads blocked. People reported that internet service had slowed, amid fears that the service would be cut off altogether on Wednesday.
“I'm alarmed by reports from Zanzibar and elsewhere of violence, deaths and detentions,” the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, Donald J. Wright, said Tuesday in a statement. “It's not too late to prevent more bloodshed! Security forces must show restraint." The United Nations secretary-general also has called on all political leaders to refrain from violence.
The U.N. human rights office said it was “particularly alarmed” by reports of the shootings in Zanzibar, urging independent investigations and appealing for calm. “We have been following with concern the shrinking of democratic space in the country, with worrying reports of intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrests and physical attacks against political opponents,” spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said.
Tanzanian President John Magufuli seeks a second five-year term in Wednesday's vote, and opposition parties and human rights groups have expressed concern that the vote is already compromised in favor of the ruling party.
The populist Magufuli quickly consolidated power after winning the 2015 election and barred opposition political parties from holding most public gatherings. Candidates ahead of Wednesday's vote, including top opposition candidate Tundu Lissu, have alleged harassment by authorities, and some major independent election observers will be absent unlike in previous votes.
“We would like to remind you that the long-term peace and stability of Tanzania as well as the region rests on your commitment and diligence in conducting a credible, impartial, fair and transparent process,” the Tanzania Elections Watch, a regional group of eminent persons, said in a letter to the East African nation's electoral commission.
So far, the group said, the commission's conduct “does not pass the basic tests of an independent and impartial election management body,” adding that “many candidates remain locked out of the process.”
Amnesty International's Seif Magango added in an interview: “We are concerned that the last five years of human rights deterioration in the country could continue into the next five.”
Zanzibar has been the scene of deadly abuses by security forces in the past. In 2001, security forces killed at least 35 people and wounded more than 600 while suppressing opposition protests over alleged election fraud, Human Rights Watch reported.
Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya contributed.