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Police use tear gas against thousands of protesters

Police fired tear gas and water cannons and made hundreds of arrests when more than 15,000 people gathered in downtown Kuala Lampur Saturday in protest against a colonial-era law that allows detention without trial.

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AFP - Malaysian police fired tear gas and water cannons, and made hundreds of arrests Saturday to disperse more than 15,000 people demonstrating against laws that allow for detention without trial.

In chaotic scenes in downtown Kuala Lumpur, some 5,000 police including riot squads hauled away at least 288 protesters among huge crowds that gathered at rallying points including two mosques and a shopping complex.

As pockets of protests held out towards dusk, deputy police chief Ismail Omar said that even more could be taken into custody.

"A total of 288 people have been arrested so far. There may be a few more after this, we don't know... The assembly was illegal," he told AFP.

"We just wanted to disperse them, so we used water cannon and tear gas to do that," he added, insisting the police action was not heavy-handed.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who took part in the demonstration and said he was also tear-gassed, denounced the police action as "unwarranted" and said it reflected badly on new prime minister Najib Razak.

"Najib has shattered his nice-guy image by allowing the police to act so brutally," he told a hastily arranged press conference.

Najib criticised the protest plans Friday, saying it was unnecessary because he had already agreed to review the Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows for detention without trial.

"He should have spoken to the opposition leaders to ask them to call off the gathering if he was serious about carrying out the reforms that he has promised," Anwar said.

Demonstrators played a cat-and-mouse game with police who attempted to prevent them from massing at the rallying points, darting into side streets before regrouping and marching down main thoroughfares.

At least 75 rounds of tear gas were fired and water cannons were unleashed at the Sogo shopping complex where the main crowd of some 10,000 people had gathered, intending to march on the royal palace.

The sustained police offensive sent the huge crowd scattering, with many coughing and choking from the effects of the tear gas.

Organisers said they wanted to present a 10-point memo to the king including demands for the abolition of the ISA, the closure of a camp where detainees are held, and an inquiry into all deaths in police custody.

At the national mosque, where an AFP reporter saw at least 50 detained, opposition legislator Siti Mariah Mahmud, from the Islamic party PAS, criticised the arrests of protesters as they attempted to enter the mosque.

"This is not reasonable. It's prayer time and this action is a breach of our religious freedom and duty," she said.

When prayers were completed, those who had managed to enter the mosque streamed out, joining a crowd of at least 5,000 which began marching before also being confronted by tear gas and water cannons.

There was traffic chaos in Kuala Lumpur, as trains halted stops at affected stations and police roadblocks caused snarls that left many shoppers stuck in the city.

The legislation, a hangover from colonial days, has been used against government opponents as well as suspected Islamist terrorists.

"We are here to fight for the ISA to be abolished," said Yati Ali, 45, one of some 100 women and children standing in a group outside the Sogo complex.

"We don't fear arrest. ISA is a cruel act, we are fighting for justice," she said.

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