At least 18 people have been killed as Malawian demonstrators and police clashed in rioting in three cities against President Bingu wa Mutharika, officials and families said.
Health ministry spokesman Henry Chimbali confirmed 10 deaths in the northern city of Mzuzu, where protesters pillaged the offices of Mutharika's Democratic Progressive Party on Wednesday in a rare show of public anger.
Reports late yesterday quoted the ministry as revising the death toll up to 18. Relatives said a man died after being shot in the southern city of Blantyre as police and troops fired tear gas to disperse crowds of demonstrators demanding Mutharika's resignation.
Other reports said three people were killed in Blantyre's Chilomoni township. Troops in big towns and police are reportedly targeting journalists. At least one reporter was seriously hurt.
The national death toll looks set to rise, with security forces in the capital Lilongwe clashing for a second day with groups of anti-government youths.
"Most casualties are dying of excessive bleeding," Chimbali said. "As people are still rioting out there we're seeing more casualties coming in, especially at Lilongwe Central Hospital."
Mutharika, a former World Bank economist first elected in 2004, took to the airwaves to make a 12-minute appeal for calm, saying that he was happy to hear grievances from opponents who accuse him of ignoring civil liberties and ruining the economy.
"Stop the rioting and let's sit down to discuss," he said on state radio, while hinting at a fiercer crackdown.
"I have a responsibility, based on the powers vested in me by the constitution, to bring law and order."
On Wednesday, the demonstrations started peacefully, but violence erupted when police set up roadblocks to keep people away from city centres.
People dressed in red, the colour favoured by opposition supporters, were forced to turn around or remove their red clothing.
''Malawi is no longer a good place to live as Bingu is ruling just like Mugabe," one demonstrator said.
Mutharika has presided over six years of high-paced but aid-funded growth.
The sheen came off this year with him embroiled in a diplomatic row with Britain, Malawi's biggest donor, over a leaked UK high commission cable labelling him as "autocratic and intolerant of criticism".
The cable led to the expulsion of Britain's high commissioner in Malawi. In response, Britain expelled Malawi's envoy to London and suspended R3.7-billion in aid over the next four years.
The freeze left a yawning hole in the budget of a country that has relied on handouts for 40% of its revenue.
It also intensified a foreign-currency shortage that threatens the kwacha's peg at 150 to the US dollar.
The dollar crunch has pushed up fuel prices and aggravated a chronic energy shortage, making a state economic growth forecast of 6.6% for this year look increasingly unrealistic.
In Blantyre, the commercial capital, shops that were shuttered during Wednesday's clashes reopened, but some banks remained closed.
Southern region police spokesman Davie Chingwalu said the riots had caused extensive property damage. Several demonstrators and police were injured. Several arrests had been made, he said.
On Wednesday, as unrest erupted across the normally sleepy former British colony, state media broadcast a long economics lecture by Mutharika in which he harangued critics including the International Monetary Fund.
"We are not off track. It is the IMF which is off track in Malawi," he said.