HARARE, Zimbabwe - The Zimbabwe government's violent crackdown on protests triggered by the country's President Emmerson Mnangagwa's decision to raise fuel prices, has led to hundreds of arrests, scores of people suffering gunshot wounds and a total shutdown of internet in the country.
According to government officials, the protests have led to the deaths of three people so far, after the President raised fuel prices by 150 percent earlier this week.
Angry protesters have taken to the streets, rejecting the price increases introduced by Mnangagwa, that pushed the cost of a gallon of gas to nearly $13.
Last weekend, the government announced a price hike of $3.11 per liter (0.26 gallons) for diesel taking its price per gallon up to about $11.96, while the price of gasoline was hiked by $3.33 per liter, taking it to $12.81 per gallon.
The price hike made gasoline in the economically challenged country the world's most expensive.
However, rights groups, lawyers and witnesses claim that scores of protesters were beaten by soldiers as part of the government's crackdown on dissent by security forces.
The State broadcaster ZBC said in a report this week that 600 people, including a prominent activist and an opposition legislator, have been detained during the protests.
On Thursday, Zimbabwean doctors issued a statement saying they had treated nearly 70 people for gunshot wounds.
The police in several cities had reportedly rounded up hundreds after violent protests, while the protests caused some businesses and banks to open up after days of protests.
The embattled President was slammed for failing to deliver on his pre-election pledges to revive the economy and break with the Robert Mugabe era.
A couple of days after the prices were hiked, the country's authorities cut off internet access but the brief shutdown on Tuesday ended the following day.
On Friday, the country faced an internet blackout after authorities extended a communications ban to cover emails, in response to the deadly protests.
The government's total shutdown of internet was confirmed by Zimbabwe's biggest mobile operator Econet Wireless, which said in a statement that the government had ordered it to shut down services until further notice.
However, responding to questions on the internet shutdown, the country's Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa issued a statement saying the demonstrations amount to "terrorism" and blamed the opposition.
Meanwhile, State Security Minister Owen Ncube thanked security forces for "standing firm" in the face of angry protests.
In a separate statement lamenting the government's "intolerant handling of dissent," the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference said, "Our country is going through one of the most trying periods in its history."
It also slammed the government's failure to halt economic collapse.
Later on Friday, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights issued a statement saying the High Court would hear a challenge to the internet shutdown in the country on Monday.
The violent crackdown in the country has also been criticized by the UN human rights office, which denounced the reported "excessive use of force" by Zimbabwe's security forces against protesters opposed to dramatic fuel price increases and austerity measures.
The UN Human Rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said in a statement, "It's very difficult to manage a situation like this, but the bottom line is that the use of live ammunition by security forces was used, excessive violence was used."
Meanwhile, the EU, the U.S. and Britain have also criticized the response by the Zimbabwean authorities to the protests.
The European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said in a statement, "The escalation of violence in Zimbabwe over recent days has been aggravated by the disproportionate use of force by security personnel."
Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy in Harare has said that it was "alarmed by credible reports that security forces are targeting and beating political activists and labor leaders."
Further, the U.K.'s minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin, has reportedly summoned Zimbabwe's ambassador to discuss "disturbing reports of use of live ammunition, intimidation and excessive force" against protesters.