Three people were shot dead and at least one more seriously injured when riots broke out Monday in Cameroon's economic capital Douala, witnesses and a first official toll said.
Police battled protesters from early morning and small demonstrations began at road junctions, while groups mainly of youths armed with clubs began to loot shops, witnesses and an AFP correspondent saw.
The city is a stronghold of opposition to President Paul Biya, who has been in power since 1982 but last month made clear that he wants to stand for office again in 2011. This triggered protests in Douala and a ban on rallies.
Two men were shot dead in the Bessengue district of the port city, a witness said, and a Cameroonian journalist confirmed to AFP that their bodies were taken to the mortuary of Douala's Laquentinie Hospital.
Communications Minister Jean-Pierre Biyiti Bi Essam, reached by telephone, said he knew of one dead person in the Bonaberi district, another part of the town, bringing the death toll to three.
"Service stations and shops have been looted on the road into the town," the minister added, giving no further details, but saying he had been informed at around 1300 GMT.
Many of Douala's three million people stayed indoors and kept stores closed after a road haulage strike was announced for Monday, fearing that any protest over the price of fuel and basic products could turn violent.
An AFP correspondent saw several injured people taken to the Laquentinie Hospital, one in a wheelbarrow shot in the chest and another on a stretcher. A kiosk was in flames in front of the hospital, surrounded by a menacing crowd.
Gunfire could be heard in the Bonaberi district, where thick columns of smoke rose into the air. Violent clashes were reported in several other parts of town and vehicles and piled-up tyres were on fire.
State radio reported that in one city district, the town hall and several other public buildings had been ransacked and the news broadcast spoke of "a tense situation," but made no mention of any casualties.
"So that's democracy," one local man exclaimed on seeing an injured man trying to reach the hospital. "Look what Cameroon's come to."
"Biya must go," another said.
Douala authorities have banned rallies and demonstrations of any kind in the city because of political opposition to a constitutional change Biya wants that would enable him to run for another term of office.
The head of state's intentions remained unclear until early January, when he said that a current constitutional limit on a third elected mandate "sits badly with the very idea of democratic choice."
With business disrupted, traffic at a standstill and taxi drivers also on strike, gangs of youths took advantage of the occasion to go looting. In the Akwa district, they raided shops owned by Chinese traders.
One looter told AFP: "They (the Chinese) have to go."
In Douala, the Social Democratic Front (SDF) led by opposition veteran John Fru Ndi has defied the ban on political protests. One man in his 20s was shot dead on Saturday during clashes with police arising from a banned SDF rally.