Violence flares before Liberian polls

Members of Tubman’s CDC party said at least three others were killed by security forces on Monday, though this could not be confirmed. Two United Nations helicopters hovered as police and Tubman’s rock-throwing supporters clashed in sidestreets.

Liberian police firing tear gas and live rounds later stormed the CDC headquarters before they were repelled by United Nations peacekeepers, who set up a cordon around the building.

Tension has risen in the Liberian capital ahead of the November 8 run-off between Tubman and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Tubman called on his supporters to boycott the vote over alleged irregularities in the first round, despite international pressure on him to stand.

Violence erupted after police tried to break up a crowd of several hundred CDC supporters that had spilled onto one of Monrovia’s largest thoroughfares. Shooting then broke out and a police officer said both the police and Tubman’s supporters had fired, but it was not possible to confirm the information.

A Reuters reporter saw a dead body with a bullet wound to the head at Tubman’s CDC party headquarters. Several people were injured, including two police officers.

“I saw four dead bodies, two men and two women,” said Lavla Washington, a 36-year-old unemployed CDC supporter.

“I have never in my life seen the police treat civilians like the enemy. The Nobel peace laureate is killing us,” Washington said, referring to Johnson-Sirleaf, who was recently co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tubman also blamed Johnson-Sirleaf.

“The situation is shocking, that live bullets were shot at peaceful people marching in the street. There is no excuse for that. It shows to you why the Liberian people are determined to get rid of this leader. She is somebody who will use violence against peaceful people,” he told Reuters inside the CDC headquarters shortly after the clashes.

Officials in Liberia’s government did not immediately comment.

A UN vehicle had its windows smashed, according to a Reuters witness. At least two UN peacekeepers were injured, a UN official on the scene said. A spokesperson for the UN, which is charged with securing the country in the wake of its civil war, said the mission was working with local authorities to “prevent any escalation of the situation”.

Johnson-Sirleaf took nearly 44 percent of the first round vote on October 11 and has since won the backing of the third-place finisher, former warlord Prince Johnson.

Former UN diplomat Tubman – who took roughly 33 percent in the first round – said last week he would withdraw from the race and called for a boycott because of evidence of fraud.

But international election observers called the October 11 vote mostly free and fair, and the United States, regional bloc Ecowas and the African Union have all criticised Tubman’s decision to boycott the second round.

The vote is due to gauge the West African state’s progress since a devastating civil war ended in 2003 and pave the way for new investment, but fears are rising it could instead open the door to open-ended political turmoil.

Retreating CDC supporters set up barricades of burning tyres and tree stumps as they were pushed back by riot police.

Tubman told Reuters on Sunday he was seeking changes to Liberia’s vote-counting procedures and a delay to the run-off of between two and four weeks, adding that his party would reject the results if the election went ahead as planned.

“I think that at the end of the day we will have to evaluate what is likely to be better for the country: delaying the elections or going forward with them in a way that doesn’t carry the support of such a big party in the country.”

The United Nations Security Council said on Sunday it was “deeply concerned” by the boycott announcement, and added that it had received reports that members of Liberia’s national electoral body had received threats. It gave no details.

Johnson-Sirleaf, who campaigned to cheering crowds in the capital on Sunday, called the boycott unconstitutional.

Liberia is one of the world’s poorest countries, with over half of its people surviving on less than 50 US cents a day. Fourteen years of intermittent fighting that ended in 2003 killed nearly a quarter of a million people and left its infrastructure in ruins.

Johnson-Sirleaf became Africa’s first freely elected female head of state in 2005, and has been internationally praised for reducing the country’s debt and maintaining peace. But she faces criticism within for the slow pace of development.

Analysts had anticipated that a smooth election would trigger a surge in foreign investment in resources like iron ore and oil, which have already attracted major firms like ArcelorMittal, BHP Billiton and Anadarko Petroleum.

Lydie Boka, head of risk consultancy StrategiCo, said a boycott risked undermining the credibility of the poll and may open the door for endless complaints over the process.

Many, like Rachael Dennis, a mother of four who works at a market stall, merely yearn for peace.

“Those who say they will not vote it is their right to say so. For those who will go to vote too, it is their right. All that I am saying is there should be no hala-hala,” she said, using the local term for violence. – Reuters