CONAKRY Guinea security forces fired tear gas at thousands of rock-throwing anti-government protesters in the seaside capital Conakry on Wednesday in clashes that wounded more than two dozen people, sources said.
The violence in the West African state is a result of soaring tensions ahead of a parliamentary election the opposition says is being rigged by the administration of President Alpha Conde.
"We don't know how it started, but the security forces charged the crowd and fired tear gas," said Ousmane Camara, a Conakry resident at the protest. Other witnesses said demonstrators were hurling rocks and chunks of concrete at police, and setting fire to tires.
A statement issued by Guinea's presidency said 18 members of the security forces had been injured in the initial clashes, including one who was in critical condition. Sources said injuries among the protesters were likely higher.
"The government deplores these incidents and calls for civility, a sense of responsibility, and for the goodwill of the people," Damantang Albert Camara, a government spokesman, said in the press release.
It was unclear if there were any dead, and witnesses said demonstrations were ongoing.
Guinea's opposition coalition had called for widespread protests in Conakry after announcing last week it would boycott preparations for long-delayed legislative polls, claiming the run up to the vote was flawed.
The election set for May 12 is intended to be the last step in Guinea's transition to civilian rule after two years under a violent army junta following the death of long-time leader Lansana Conte in 2008.
President Alpha Conde won a 2010 presidential election in the world's top supplier of bauxite, the raw material in aluminum, but delays in the legislative vote have deepened a political deadlock and led to intermittent violence.
The opposition says the elections commission chose the poll date unilaterally and that two companies contracted to update voter rolls have skewed the lists in Conde's favor. They also want Guineans living abroad to be allowed to vote.
Thousands of people had participated in peaceful protests across Guinea last week in support of opposition demands. The parliamentary poll was originally due to be held in 2011 but has already been delayed four times.
Conde has promised prosperity to the former French colony's 10 million people, whose economy produces only about $1.50 per person per day despite a wealth of natural resources, including the world's largest untapped iron ore deposit.
The European Union, a major donor, warned in November that it needed a credible and detailed timeline for the election to unblock about 174 million euros ($229 million) in aid.
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Jon Hemming)