Zimbabwe’s main opposition party called off planned anti-government demonstrations on Friday, saying it aimed to avert bloodshed after police rounded up its followers and dispersed them with batons and water cannon.

The Movement for Democratic Change, which accuses President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government of repression and economic mismanagement, had called a demonstration for Friday as the start of a nationwide protest movement.

But police announced on Thursday that the protest would be banned, and an MDC court appeal to have the ban lifted failed. Police patrolled the usually bustling city center in lorries and on foot, firing tear gas to disperse any groups that attempted to gather as most shops and business shut.

Around 100 MDC supporters who gathered early were chased by baton-wielding officers from a city square. Armed police barred access to the MDC’s Harare offices.

“Today we didn’t want to risk people’s lives by continuing to be confrontational because if we had chosen to be confrontational there will be blood in the streets,” Nelson Chamisa, the MDC leader, told reporters in Harare.

“We will continue to mobilize but what you are going to see is a mutation of our strategy because when you are facing a confrontational regime you must also use tactics that are going to be above them,” he said, without elaborating.

Police said in a statement that 91 people were arrested for various offences. “The police is firm on the ground to ensure that law and order is maintained,” the statement read.

Outside the court that rejected the appeal to lift the ban on protesting, MDC Vice President Tendai Biti said: “The constitution guarantees the right to demonstration … yet this fascist regime has denied and proscribed this right.”

“We have jumped from the frying pan into the fire after the (anti-Mugabe) coup of November 2017… We don’t accept the conduct of this regime, the conduct of Mr Mnangagwa.”

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