- - Monday, November 7, 2011

MONROVIA, Liberia — At least two people were killed Monday at the headquarters of Liberia’s main opposition party when police used live ammunition to disperse demonstrators on the eve of a runoff presidential election.

The race pits incumbent President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last month, against Winston Tubman of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC).

Mr. Tubman called Friday for a boycott of the runoff, citing electoral irregularities, and opposition supporters were gathered at the headquarters to stage a march against the runoff.

Witnesses said the confrontation erupted after CDC supporters tried to leave the compound and threw stones at the police, who responded with live ammunition and tear gas. Supporters then huddled inside the compound with Mr. Tubman and his running mate, George Weah, a former international soccer star.

As tear gas canisters were lobbed outside, a visibly shaken Mr. Weah told The Washington Times that the use of live ammunition was unprovoked and unjustifiable.

“The police threw tear gas on [the demonstrators] when they were retreating. They were constantly sending tear gas,” he said. “Even if one person threw a stone, you cannot shoot a live bullet on a human being. That is wrong.”

He also called on the National Elections Commission (NEC) to postpone the runoff.

NEC Executive Director John Langley said by phone, however, that the runoff would proceed as scheduled.

“I don’t think it will affect the election,” he said. “We hope to take care of the situation so Liberians can go to the polls tomorrow. The election can’t be postponed because it’s constitutional.”

The body of a young man who sustained a gunshot wound to his right eye was laid out on the floor of an upstairs room at the party’s headquarters, his white T-shirt bloodied.

Lucille Maxim, a demonstrator who claimed to have seen the shooting, said the police held the victim down on the ground and shot him at point-black range.

“He died right on the spot, right away,” she said.

Wilson Boakai, another witness, said he had seen at least five dead bodies, and that the shootings were the work of the police’s Emergency Response Unit - or, as he and other CDC supporters called it, the “Ellen Response Unit,” a reference to the incumbent president.

After the first round of shootings, tear gas canisters continued to land inside the compound as U.N. tanks arrived on the scene. Although U.N. peacekeepers appeared to be trying to keep Liberian police away from the headquarters, Liberian officers stormed the building with their guns drawn just before 4 p.m.

One demonstrator was killed by a gunshot wound to the head before U.N. peacekeepers were able to subdue the Liberian police.

Justice Minister Christiana Tah said at a news conference Monday evening that the incident was under investigation and that perpetrators would be brought to justice. She also called on registered voters to go to the polls Tuesday, saying the government would ensure their safety.

She said the confrontation had involved “an exchange of gunfire” - an account that has been disputed by CDC supporters at the scene, who maintained they were unarmed.

As for casualties, Ms. Tah said there “may have been” one death, but that this information was coming from “unconfirmed reports.”

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