Harare: Zimbabwean police on Friday fired tear gas at opposition leaders and hundreds of demonstrators as a protest against President Robert Mugabe descended into one of the worst outbreaks of violence in two decades.
Opposition head Morgan Tsvangirai and former vice president Joice Mujuru fled the rally in their cars while protesters ran for cover as police firing tear gas and water cannons broke-up the core of the demonstration.
Clashes then spread through the streets of Harare as riot police fought running battles with protesters who hurled rocks at officers, set tyres ablaze and burned a popular market to the ground, in some of the worst unrest since food riots in 1998.
"Mugabe's rule must end now, that old man has failed us," said one protester before throwing a rock at a taxi.
Mugabe's opponents have become emboldened by rising public anger and protests over an economic meltdown, cash shortages and high unemployment. Mugabe, 92, has led Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980.
More than a hundred police officers in riot gear, backed up by water cannons and armoured trucks, occupied the venue that opposition parties planned to use for their demonstration.
As opposition supporters arrived for the march, they were told by the police to leave. The officers then fired teargas and a water cannon when parts of the crowd refused to comply.
Police spokeswoman Charity Charamba said she was still to get details on Friday's protest.
"Demonstrating is the only solution left to force the dictator out of office," said Tapfuma Make, an unemployed 24-year-old from Chitungwiza town, south of the capital Harare.
Zimbabwe's High Court earlier ruled that police should allow the protest to proceed between 12pm - 4pm (1000-1400 GMT) in what Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) called a "victory for democracy".
MDC secretary general and lawyer Douglas Mwonzora said the police had disregarded the court order and accused ZANU-PF youths of infiltrating the crowd to disrupt the protest.
Opposition parties leading the protests say the electoral commission is biased in favour of the ruling ZANU-PF and is run by security agencies loyal to Mugabe, charges the commission denies.
The protesters want the next vote in 2018 to be supervised by international observers, including the United Nations. They are also calling for Mugabe to fire corrupt ministers, scrap plans to introduce local bank notes and end cash shortages.
The latest demonstrations come nearly two months after the biggest large scale 'stay at home' strike in Zimbabwe since 2007, inspired by social media movements such as #ThisFlag led by pastor Evan Mawarire.
Home Affairs Minister Ignatius Chombo on Thursday called opposition leaders "foreign agents" using protests to cause chaos in order to justify international intervention in Zimbabwe's affairs.
Zimbabwe's police used teargas and a water cannon on Wednesday to break-up a march by MDC youth supporters who were protesting over economic mismanagement and what they say is brutality by security agencies.