June 13, 2012 / 7:44 PM / 5 years ago

Sierra Leone police shootings stir unrest, probe

FREETOWN (Reuters) - Sierra Leone has announced a coroner's inquiry into recent shootings by the police, which have raised tensions in the West African state in the run-up to presidential elections in November.

Last week Sierra Leonean police killed two members of a vigilante group in Freetown, sparking outrage. Policemen then shot in the air to stop crowds marching on the president's office with the victim's coffins.

"We know that police can use arms, but we think they can only use arms when it's really the crunch," Sheka Tarawalie, Sierra Leone's deputy minister of information, told Reuters on Wednesday.

Events last week were the latest in a series of incidents involving the security forces that have raised questions about the ability of the police to manage November's poll, which will test the nation's progress during a decade of relative stability.

In April, police cracked down on a protest by workers for iron ore miner African Minerals in the town of Bumbuna, killing one woman and injuring at least six others.

In September last year rioting broke out in Sierra Leone's second city of Bo and at least one person was killed after police intervened.

The coroner's inquiry will investigate the Bo, Bumbuna and Freetown incidents, according to a statement from the president's office.

"The police have been armed with very lethal weapons, and we believe they are not well trained to know when to use them," said Valnora Edwin, national coordinator of the Campaign for Good Governance, a local rights group.

The election, 10 years after the end of Sierra Leone's civil war, follows massive aid investment to reform Sierra Leone's security forces.

The United Kingdom's Department for International Development spent £27 million on a "justice sector development program," between 2005 and 2011.

In April this year the U.N. Security Council warned Sierra Leone to "respond proportionately to threats to security," after the police purchased $4.5 million of weaponry, including heavy machine guns and grenade launchers.

After frantic diplomatic wrangling a deal was struck to transfer the heavier weapons to the Sierra Leonean army.

At a junction in Freetown, a large hoarding showing the cover of the local SierraEye magazine underlines domestic concerns.

"Election 2012 Role of the police: Fear or Fair?" it reads.

Francis Munu, Sierra Leone's inspector general of police, told Reuters he would co-operate with the coroner's inquiry. "As a democratic police service we are accountable to the law."

Reporting by Simon Akam; Editing by David Lewis and Jon Hemming

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