MONROVIA Clashes and sporadic gunfire rocked part of Monrovia on the eve of a presidential election, killing at least one person after riot police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of supporters of challenger Winston Tubman.
Members of Tubman's CDC party said at least three other people were killed by security forces on Monday, though this could not be confirmed. 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 U.N. 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, the first locally organized presidential contest since civil war ended in 2003. 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 who 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 account.
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, and a United Nations vehicle was smashed.
"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, saying there was "no excuse" for using live rounds.
"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.
Liberia's justice minister, Christina Tah, said the rally had not been granted a permit by the government and was an act of lawless provocation by the CDC. She said at least one person was killed and two injured.
"The government of Liberia regrets the fact that young people have again been used by desperate and unscrupulous politicians to achieve their political objectives."
Liberia Police Inspector Marc Amblard said U.N. peacekeepers had detained a member of the police after he admitted to firing his sidearm during the clashes.
A spokesperson for the U.N., which is charged with securing the country in the wake of its civil war, said she could not confirm the arrest, but 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 U.N. 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 criticized Tubman's decision to boycott the second round.
The vote had been expected to reflect the West African state's progress since a devastating civil war ended in 2003 and pave the way for new investment, but fears are growing that it could instead open the door to open-ended political turmoil.
Retreating CDC supporters set up barricades of burning tires 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."
U.N. "DEEPLY CONCERNED"
Even before the clashes, the United Nations Security Council said it was "deeply concerned" by the boycott call.
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 U.S. 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 praised abroad for reducing the country's debt and maintaining peace. But she faces criticism at home 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 could open the door to 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.
(Additional reporting by Finbarr O'Reilly; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Andrew Roche)