Elections violence grips Sierra Leone capital
Reuters AlertNet
September 1, 2007

By Katrina Manson

FREETOWN, Sept 1 (Reuters) - Dozens of people were wounded in clashes between supporters of rival political parties in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown on Saturday ahead of next weekend's presidential runoff in the war-battered African state.

Police fired tear gas to stop the street battles near the headquarters of the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), a day after opposition candidate Ernest Bai Koroma was forced to abandon campaigning in the country's southeast due to violence.

International observers have appealed for calm ahead of next Saturday's election, which has been billed as a test of Sierra Leone's recovery from a 1991-2002 diamond-fuelled civil war which killed more than 50,000 people.

A Reuters reporter saw around two dozen wounded people taken in a police van to a hospital in the coastal city. Police commander Tamba Gbekie said at least three people were stabbed.

Witnesses on the city's streets reported hearing gunshots but police could not confirm whether they came from the crowd.

"They are throwing stones at us and firing," said SLPP supporter Joseph Gbla, an unemployed 26-year-old. "They don't want the peace to go further. They want to create chaos."

Koroma, of the All People's Congress (APC), won the Aug. 11 first round with 44 percent of the vote, amid widespread discontent at rampant corruption and high unemployment.

Vice-President Soloman Berewa of the SLPP polled 38 percent, but faces an uphill task to win the Sept. 8 runoff after third-placed candidate Charles Margai threw his support behind Koroma.


Police set up roadblocks along Freetown's rock-strewn main thoroughfare, separating the two groups of supporters. Gangs of young men chanting SLPP slogans prowled the streets carrying sticks before gradually dispersing.

The disturbances later spread to the east of the city, an APC stronghold, where gangs of youths dressed in the party's red colours tore down Berewa posters. Police again used tear gas to break up the mob.

"If you wear red they attack you," said Samuel Koroma, 23 and unemployed. "The ruling government wants war because we don't want them any more."

The elections have revealed ethnic fault lines in the nation of more than 5 million people, with the SLPP drawing its support from the southern Mende peoples and the APC stronger in the Temne north and west.

They are the first polls since U.N. peacekeepers left two years ago in the wake of a conflict notorious for drugged child soldiers who mutilated, raped and killed civilians during a nightmare decade of intertwined wars in West Africa.

A high-level delegation from the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS), led by Commission President Mohammed Ibn Chambas, met with party representatives to urge calm ahead the second-round.

At a meeting on Saturday, Berewa and Koroma agreed to a peace march on Monday in an effort to defuse political tensions. But observers said this was meaningless unless parties could control their sympathisers.

"The skirmishes in Freetown really underscore the need for the leadership to call their supporters to order and to have civil conduct and peaceful elections," said Chris Fomunyoh of the National Democratic Institute's (NDI) observer mission.

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