Taiwan riot police battle protesters

Violent clashes follow peaceful demonstration


TAIPEI, Taiwan - Riot police fought with demonstrators and used water cannons mounted on armored cars last night as a large rally in front of the presidential palace turned unexpectedly violent.

A crowd estimated by organizers at 300,000 and by the police at 100,000 assembled peacefully yesterday afternoon to call for a parliamentary investigation into a shooting incident that wounded President Chen Shui-bian on the eve of elections last month and may have helped him win re-election. Most of the crowd dispersed at sunset, but a few thousand remained and began skirmishing with riot police.

A group of senior lawmakers from the opposition Nationalist Party and the affiliated People First Party walked to the front of the demonstrators to ask them to disperse, passing a man who clutched a white handkerchief to his forehead as blood poured from his scalp. The lawmakers were able to calm the crowd for an hour, but only a few people left and fights with the riot police resumed.

The violence could hurt the political prospects of the opposition in legislative elections in December and in the 2008 presidential election. The opposition had portrayed itself as the party of stability and had warned that Chen's sometimes confrontational approach to relations with mainland China risked war.

Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou is the Nationalists' most likely presidential candidate in 2008 after Chen's defeat of Lien Chan, the Nationalists' chairman. Ma said in a telephone interview before the demonstration that the protest should remain peaceful to keep the support of the Taiwanese people.

But many of the protesters who lingered after sunset were clearly looking for a confrontation. Some wore motorcycle helmets for protection, and a few carried steel pipes and other clubs. Many wore surgical masks to make it hard for the police to identify them. Many anticipated the water cannons, wearing plastic ponchos.

"We prepared," said a man who wore a black mask with the Chinese characters for the word honesty.

On March 20, Chen won a second four-year term by fewer than 30,000 votes out of 13 million cast, defeating Lien and his People First Party running mate, James Soong. The president had been grazed across the abdomen the day before by a bullet while standing in an open Jeep in a motorcade through his hometown, Tainan.

The Nationalists have suggested that presidential aides inside the Jeep may have staged the shooting, in a bid to bolster Chen's support.

At the government's invitation, Henry Lee, a former Taipei police captain, is looking into the case. Lee immigrated to the United States in the 1960s and testified as a forensic expert for the defense in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

In a televised news conference yesterday afternoon in Tainan, Lee said that glass had sprayed into the vehicle, showing that a bullet had come from outside the Jeep and traveled through the windshield.

The opposition wants an investigation controlled by Parliament, where it has a slight majority, rather than allowing the government-controlled police to handle the inquiry.

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