Zimbabwe's president has skipped his first political rally since last month's deadly military crackdown on protests so he could explain the unrest to fellow African leaders, a spokesman said Saturday.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa's administration has been under pressure amid reports of at least 12 people killed, hundreds wounded and some women raped. The crackdown has hurt government efforts to secure badly needed foreign assistance to rebuild the collapsed economy, and undermined pledges of democratic reforms.
Spokesman George Charamba in a statement said the president was spending the day briefing regional leaders. Mnangagwa earlier in the week blamed Western countries for backing the unrest, a favorite line of his former mentor and longtime Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe, who stepped down in late 2017 under military pressure.
The military remains in the streets after being called out last month, and human rights groups, witnesses and opposition figures continue to report abuses in poor and working-class suburbs. In some areas, soldiers have set up tents at police stations where they have taken up residence.
Mnangagwa earlier in the week told local journalists that the use of the military was necessary to maintain public order.
International condemnation continues over the crackdown on the protests over steep fuel price increases that made gasoline in Zimbabwe the world's most expensive. Labor leaders and activists called for people to stay home in protest, while some took to the streets in anger or desperation. Some people who reported venturing out for bread in empty-shelved shops said they were beaten.
The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, in a new statement said the United States was "deeply concerned," and the United Nations office in Zimbabwe expressed concern over "trails of destruction, looting, mass arrest and detention," including of children.
The response by African leaders, however, has been muted, with neighboring South Africa criticized after President Cyril Ramaphosa last month again suggested that U.S. and other sanctions on Zimbabwe should be lifted.
Reports of rapes and sexual violence by security forces in recent days have caused outrage. Police said they have recorded only one case of rape, while the president's spokesman dismissed the reports as "bottom-up propaganda."
At the rally on Saturday in a ruling party stronghold, some people started walking out after it was announced the president would not show.
Top officials present had gloomy faces, while Vice President Kembo Mohadi, who stood in for Mnangagwa, told the subdued crowd that Zimbabwe's worsening economic condition was due to the "work of the enemy."
The top officials clapped but the crowd remained muted as the vice president promised good times ahead and described the crisis as short-term and like "mere labor pains."
Meanwhile, fuel lines have begun resurfacing after briefly disappearing following the price increase.