ZANZIBAR, Tanzania -- Crucial regional elections turned violent yesterday as police and the ruling party's militia engaged in running clashes with opposition supporters in the streets of the main town in semiautonomous Zanzibar.
Police fired tear gas and water cannons while party militiamen beat suspected government opponents on the edges of the old city, known as Stone Town. More than a dozen people were injured, hospital officials said.
The violence broke out as voters turned out in heavy numbers to choose between the socialists who have ruled the Indian Ocean archipelago for nearly 40 years and an opposition group promising wholesale economic changes. Results were not expected until later in the week.
Coming after a bitterly contested campaign marred by frequent violence, the election was seen by many here as a test of whether Western-style democracy can work in this devoutly Muslim part of East Africa. The past two elections also were tainted by violence and charges of fraud.
Clashes erupted yesterday after police and the ruling party tried to truck in hundreds of people to vote at polling stations against the objections of local residents. Voting for the region's councilors, legislators, and president is based on residency.
''With my own eyes I've seen these people being ferried from the countryside into town. I couldn't believe it," said Nassor Saif, the opposition's representative on the electoral commission.
Some of the disputed voters were listed on voter registers, which have been disputed since the elections were scheduled. When asked by journalists where they were from, the trucked-in voters covered their faces and refused to answer.
Riot police fired live ammunition into the air and shot tear gas down Stone Town's narrow alleys to chase away residents who threatened violence. Stone Town is a stronghold of the opposition Civic United Front.
When protesters refused to disperse, police used high-pressure nozzles mounted on trucks to spray water laced with tear gas. The water cannons sprayed indiscriminately and hit international journalists watching the violence.
Journalists also saw uniformed members of the ruling party's militia, the Green Guard, severely beat at least one man suspected of being an opposition supporter.
Disputes over voter lists also occurred at polling stations across Zanzibar.
Regional Police Chief George Kiziguto declined to answer any questions.
Despite the unrest, polls stayed open the allotted time. Most stations reported voter turnout of at least 80 percent.
Many people considered the elections key to the future of democracy in Zanzibar, following polls in 1995 and 2000 that also were marred by violence and fraud. Radicals could cite a third flawed ballot as proof that an Islamic government is the only answer to the island's problems.
Zanzibar President Amani Karume predicted his party would retain control after the election.