By Frank Phiri
BLANTYRE (Reuters) - Shops were closed and Malawi troops patrolled streets in major urban areas on Friday after rare protests against President Bingu wa Mutharika this week left 18 people dead in the destitute south African state.
The United States and Britain condemned the violence by Malawi authorities and their crackdown on private radio stations trying to report on the violence.
"In light of continued rioting and rumors of retaliation, we urge restraint from both sides," the U.S. embassy in Pretoria said in a statement.
Such unrest is almost unheard of in Malawi, ruled for decades after independence in 1964 by the iron-fisted Hastings Banda, and echoes popular uprisings that have engulfed north Africa and the Middle East over the last seven months.
Health ministry spokesman Henry Chimbali confirmed 10 deaths in the northern cities of Karonga and Mzuzu, where protesters angry at chronic fuel shortages and Mutharika's rule ransacked his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) offices on Wednesday.
Eight others died in the capital, Lilongwe, and Blantyre after police and troops fired tear gas to disperse crowds demanding Mutharika quit as leader of the nation of 13 million.
The deadly crackdown in the normally peaceful former British colony is likely to intensify public anger against Mutharika, a former World Bank economist first elected in 2004, and could destroy his already troubled relationship with the donors who keep his government afloat.
Mutharika has presided over six years of high-paced but aid-funded growth, and the sheen came off earlier this year when he became embroiled in a diplomatic row with Britain, Malawi's biggest donor, over a leaked embassy cable that referred to him as "autocratic and intolerant of criticism."
The cable led to the expulsion of Britain's ambassador to Lilongwe, and in response, Britain expelled Malawi's representative in London and suspended aid worth $550 million over the next four years.
The freeze has left a yawning hole in the budget of a country that has relied on handouts for 40 percent of its revenues, and intensified a foreign currency shortage that is threatening the kwacha's peg at 150 to the dollar.
The police and military presence in the southern commercial center Blantyre has been reduced, vehicles were returning to roads and many citizens planned to attend funerals for those killed in the clashes.
"The situation looks calm this morning, but let's see what happens in the afternoon," said Lilongwe resident and freelance journalist George Mtonya.
(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Louise Ireland)