For about an hour, travellers along the M1 were left inconvenienced at Lirangwe Trading Centre as police and villagers engaged in running battles over charcoal yesterday.
The villagers were protesting the seizure of charcoal in a joint operation by the Department of Forestry and the police, according to eyewitnesses interviewed at the scene.
The operation, which saw the confiscation of all transported charcoal, including that ferried on bicycles as well as charcoal sold by roadside, angered charcoal sellers who pelted stones at the law enforcers.
In an interview yesterday, Chileka Police Station spokesperson Jonathan Philipo said hell broke loose after the forestry team and the police shot in the air in an attempt to disperse the mob.
He said the charcoal sellers regrouped and started attacking motorists, demanding money to compensate for their impounded charcoal.
Philipo said: “The forestry operation team escaped when they noticed that the scene was becoming ugly. Police from
Lirangwe Police Unit tried to calm the situation, but protesters invaded the unit and smashed all glasses.”
Traffic on the M1, which connects the commercial capital Blantyre to the capital city Lilongwe and is the gateway to Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa through Mwanza was blocked. Several drivers were seen making U-turns to escape the fracas.
Others motorists desperately tried to follow a police Toyota Land Cruiser which had armed police officers to pass through the scene of the fracas, but their mission was futile as stones rained on the vehicle, forcing it to retreat.
Another eyewitness said it was clear that the number of police officers was not enough to hold the lines.
Reinforcement came in from Chileka Police Station which tactically advanced towards the mob while firing tear gas and beckoning motorists to pass.
After about 15 to 20 the vehicles had passed through the scene, police completely re-opened the road for traffic.
Ward councillor for the area Akima Chipwatali, who witnessed the fracas, said the chaos escalated after community members joined the protest in support of the charcoal sellers.
He said: “Being a market day, hundreds flocked to the road, attacking motorists and damaging various properties.
“Police tried to disperse them with tear gas canisters but the police were outnumbered. It’s only when police officers from Chileka came that they managed to calm the situation.”