Blairs in South Africa: Police shoot three in pro-Iraq protest

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The Independent Online
AT LEAST three people were injured in Cape Town yesterday when police officers opened fire on Muslim militants trying to demonstrate outside a function attended by the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

The shooting happened soon after Mr Blair's party arrived at the 17th- century Dutch castle in Cape Town, where he was to present medals to 15 British soldiers attached to the South African National Defence Forces. Among those injured were Talia Bader, a leader of the militant G-Force Islamic group in Cape Town, and Lynn Murray, a reporter with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, who was hit by shotgun pellets in the legs and hand.

A police spokesman said the officers present had fired a stun grenade and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters, who had not been given permission to demonstrate and who had been chanting death threats against Mr Blair.

He could not confirm the use of shotguns, although reporters present, including The Independent, saw or heard officers firing at least 20 rounds from levelled shotguns in the direction of the crowd. Despite the end of apartheid-era unrest, shotgun rounds, or "bird shot", are still routinely used here for riot control.

While police later claimed that they believed shots had been fired at them from the crowd, no journalists or civilian witnesses could confirm this.

The first shots, including a number of tear gas canisters, appeared to have been directed at the protest leaders when they failed to disperse, at about 4.30pm. A police spokesman, Inspector Eugene Sitzer, later confirmed that Ms Bader appeared to have been hit in the head by a rubber bullet. Other demonstrators, including a young boy, were also seen to be injured but managed to flee.

Police opened fire again, five minutes later, when a number of men and youths regrouped and began to hurl stones and missiles. It was at this point that the journalist was hit.

Last night Mr Blair played down the violence and the demonstrations. "You get used to protesters and there weren't very many of them.

"I think it's pretty limited and there were a very small number of demonstrators," he said.

A South African minister apologised to Mr Blair for the violence. "We express our regrets. We support free speech but this must be done without violence," Kader Asmal, the Minister for Water, told the Prime Minister.

The shootings marked two days of "cat and mouse" between police and the small but vocal Muslim minority, seeking to show their anger at the recent British and American military attacks on Iraq.

On Thursday, several members of a group calling itself Muslims Against Global Oppression were arrested after pistol shots were fired at a police vehicle attempting to break up an illegal march from the US consulate to the British High Commission. But the group's leader, Moain Achmad, who was among those arrested, was released in time to lead a second round of protests yesterday. Shortly before the shooting began, his supporters chanted "One Blair one bullet".

Mr Achmad said they were outraged at Mr Blair's role in the recent bombing of Iraq.