BO, Sierra Leone, Aug 31 (Reuters) – The opposition frontrunner in Sierra Leone’s presidential election cut short a campaigning tour on Friday after his convoy was attacked by stone-throwing pro-government supporters, witnesses said. Ernest Bai Koroma, who finished ahead in the Aug. 11 first round of voting, accused the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) party of outgoing President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of trying to derail the election, before a run-off vote on Sept. 8.
A Reuters reporter travelling with Koroma’s All People’s Congress (APC) convoy said SLPP militants used bottles, sticks, stones and spades to attack APC supporters on Thursday as they drove through two southeastern towns, Segbwema and Kenema.
Police escorting the convoy had to fire tear gas to force a passage through roadblocks put up by SLPP supporters. Koroma abandoned his vehicle after its windows were smashed by stones and its tyres punctured by nails.
“It’s all just part of a grand design to delay the elections,” Koroma, who faces SLPP vice president Solomon Berewa in the run-off, told Reuters.
SLPP officials rejected Koroma’s accusation. Kabbah said this week he would declare a state of emergency if clashes between rival supporters worsened.
Koroma returned to the capital Freetown on Friday under armed guard to attend a meeting about the violence with election officials and representatives of political parties.
“We are on the winning side and we don’t want to give them an excuse to declare a state of emergency,” Koroma said.
Koroma said three supporters were injured in the rioting, which continued when SLPP militants besieged the hotel where he was staying in the southern town of Bo. Police said they fired shots into the air to disperse the rioters.
These are the first elections in the former British colony since U.N. peacekeepers left the country two years after a 1991-2002 civil war, one of Africa’s most brutal conflicts.
SLPP Secretary-General J.J. Saffa said ruling party supporters had responded to provocation. During the violence in Segbwema, a local SLPP office was burned down.
“The APC came dressed in black and (wearing) headbands, behaving like rebels. They came with militias. This is mere intimidation,” he said.
Koroma’s APC won a parliamentary majority in the Aug. 11 legislative vote and enjoys strong support among the northern Temne and Limba groups. The SLPP commands votes in the south, where the Mende people dominate.
None of the presidential contenders gained the 55 percent required to win the first round outright. Koroma won 44 percent of the vote on Aug. 11 while Berewa polled 38 percent.
Koroma’s chances of victory in the run-off have been boosted by public backing from the third-placed first round candidate, Charles Margai, who won 14 percent of the vote.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern this week about the escalating violence and called on political leaders in Sierra Leone to restrain their supporters.U.N. staff were advised to avoid non-essential travel in the interior. (Additional reporting by Christo Johnson)