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KLANG, Malaysia, Nov 5 (AFP) - Malaysian riot police fired tear gas and water cannon Sunday to break up a protest by supporters of jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, witnesses said.

An AFP correspondent at the scene said the crowd of opposition supporters numbering at least 1,000 fled as riot police advanced along a main highway which had earlier been closed to traffic.

Police were seen kicking and beating some detainees as they led them away and damaging some cars and motorbikes with their batons. They shot several more tear gas rounds into a palmoil plantation by the roadside where some people took refuge.

Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is temporarily confined to a wheelchair, said protesters had agreed to disperse peacefully before the police advanced. She estimated the crowd at several thousand. "I think they (police) were just trying to create disorder so the opposition would be blamed," she told AFP after supporters had carried her wheelchair to a car.

Earlier Wan Azizah and the leaders of the three other opposition parties had led a march down the highway, after police blocked access to the venue of a planned rally nearby.

The crowd, shouting "Reformasi!" and "Free Anwar!" and beating drums, had halted a few hundred metres from a police line at a toll plaza to hear speeches from opposition leaders.

"As we were telling them (the crowd) to leave, the police ambushed us," said Wan Azizah, head of the National Justice Party. "The crowd was very quiet."

She said 80 people had been detained and six members of her party suffered head wounds from police batons. There were unconfirmed reports that some protesters attacked a plain-clothes policeman just before the police advanced. About 10 people were seen attacking a man but his identity could not be established. Riot police damaged an AFP photographer's camera after he took a picture of one scuffle.

Selangor state police chief Nik Ismail Nik Yusuf said 30 people were arrested and one policeman was injured. He said 700 police -- regular officers, riot police, the air wing and paramilitary forces -- were involved.

Police fired water cannon and tear gas at several junctions off the Kesas Highway to disperse the "illegal assembly," Bernama news agency quoted him as saying.

Protesters had called a rally in a privately-owned field near Klang 20 km (12 miles) west of Kuala Lumpur. Police had declared it illegal and said those taking part could be jailed for up to one year. Police had blocked access roads to the rally site and then closed the highway itself. A traffic jam several kilometers long built up and opposition leaders and supporters walked towards the venue. Amid the traffic jam, opposition supporters earlier in the afternoon staged impromptu protests, shouting "Reformasi!" (Reform). "Up, up Anwar, down, down Mahathir," one placard read. Opponents of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had called the rally to protest at Anwar's plight and at curbs on freedom of assembly and other perceived rights abuses.

"We are not looking for trouble but we are here because we love this country," Lim Kit Siang, chairman of the Democratic Action Party, told the crowd just before the police advanced.

"We want justice, freedom and democracy to be restored to the people." Wan Azizah, who suffered a leg injury last week, told the crowd: "We are here to demand the people's rights. Free Anwar, restore the people's rights and give us justice."

Organisers of the planned rally, in a statement beforehand, accused a "dictatorial leadership" of denying civil rights and sacking Anwar "in the most callous and despicable manner."

They accused the government of violating constitutional rights of free speech, freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Police have wide powers to ban demonstrations.

Anwar was sacked by Mahathir on September 2, 1998 and arrested 18 days later following mass anti-government rallies.

Anwar claims Mahathir orchestrated a conspiracy to frame him on criminal charges because he was seen as a political threat. The government denies any plot and says courts are independent.

In April 1999 Anwar was jailed for six years for abuse of power and in August this year was imprisoned nine years for sodomy. The sentences will run consecutively.


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