Elections violence grips Sierra Leone



FREETOWN (Reuters) – Dozens of people were wounded in street battles between supporters of rival political parties in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown on Saturday ahead of next weekend’s presidential runoff.

Police fired tear gas to stop the clashes outside the headquarters of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) which came after several days of violence in the interior.

A Reuters reporter saw around two dozen wounded taken in a police van to a hospital in the coastal city.

The violence came as international observers 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.

The polls have revealed ethnic fault lines in the nation of more than 5 million people.

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

“Once we get this situation under control, then we can see whether shots were fired,” said police commander Tamba Gbekie, who said at least three people had been stabbed.

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.

At a meeting on Saturday, SLPP candidate Vice-President Soloman Berewa and opposition frontrunner Ernest Boi Koroma, who won the August 11 first round, agreed to a peace march on Monday in an effort to defuse political tensions.

The European Union’s chief election observer Marie Anne Isler had appealed earlier on Saturday for the peaceful conduct of elections, the first since U.N. peacekeepers left the country two years ago in the wake of the war notorious for drugged child soldiers who mutilated, raped and killed civilians.

“I am concerned about the recent spate of violent incidents running up to election day … and would encourage all of the parties and groups to ensure that these incidents cease,” she told Reuters via email.

On Friday Koroma of the All People’s Congress (APC), cut short a campaigning tour of the country’s south after his convoy was attacked by stone-throwing SLPP supporters.

That came after three days of disturbances week in the south and east of the country and in the outskirts of Freetown.

None of the presidential contenders gained the 55 percent required to win the August 11 first round outright. Koroma took 44 percent of the vote, while Vice-President Soloman Berewa of the SLPP polled 38 percent, amid widespread frustration at corruption and high unemployment.

Third-placed candidate Charles Margai, who split from the SLPP in 2006, has already thrown his support behind Koroma, making him the favorite to clinch the September 8 runoff.

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