TAIPEI -- Tossing bottles and rocks, thousands of Taiwanese protesters were blasted by police water cannon yesterday after a rally demanding an independent investigation of the bizarre shooting that injured President Chen Shui-bian one day before his narrow reelection.
The rowdy protests have become a weekend tradition since Chen won the March 10 vote and opposition candidate Lien Chan challenged the results. Lien has insinuated that Chen might have staged the unexplained shooting, and he wants a special task force to probe the event. So far, police have no suspects or solid leads.
Yesterday's rally began peacefully as about 50,000 people gathered in front of the Presidential Office to listen to Lien and other politicians give speeches. They also signed a petition demanding that a referendum be held on whether the shooting commission should be created.
But after the rally ended at 6 p.m. local time, about 1,000 protesters gathered at a barbed-wire barricade in front of the Presidential Office. They began taunting police guarding the barrier, and some threw bottles and rocks. Others heaved sheets of metal on the barricade and threatened to scale it.
Police blasted the crowd with water cannons when the protesters tore down scaffolding from a rally stage and tried to use the metal structure to ram the police barricade. The protesters fought back, hitting police shields with metal rods, flagpoles, and umbrellas.
Shortly after 10 p.m. local time, more than 1,000 police formed a thick column and began slowly pushing the crowd out of the area. Some of the protesters threw scraps of metal and bottles at police as they retreated. One demonstrator tossed a gasoline bomb, but no one was injured.
Some lawmakers with the small opposition People First Party, which supported Lien's candidacy, seized the occasion to give fiery antigovernment speeches and to yell at police. PFP legislators have helped incite previous postelection riots.
A high-ranking official with Lien's Nationalist Party, Lin Fong-cheng, urged the protesters to calm down and disperse. Lin added that he "had heard" that those who started the violence were ruling-party members who infiltrated the crowd and were trying to sully the opposition's reputation.
The allegation drew a quick, angry reaction from Lee Ying-yuan, a senior official in the president's Democratic Progressive Party. "We demand that Lin Fong-cheng take back what he said by Monday. Otherwise, we'll go to court and file a lawsuit against the Nationalist Party," Lee said.
Earlier yesterday, protester Carson Huang, 46, a civil servant, said he was sick of waiting for answers about the shooting.
"The shooting happened three weeks ago, but still the president has not made an effort to find a solution," Huang said. "We need the voice of the people to force the president to come up with an explanation."
Huang said that the government has invited a team of prominent US forensics specialists to join the investigation. The group was led by Henry Lee, who spent much of yesterday reconstructing the shooting scene.
Huang doubted that Lee, who was involved in the O.J. Simpson case, would be able to crack the case.
Lee has said that he doubted that Chen's wound was self-inflicted, and conspiracy theorists have provided little evidence to back their assertions that Chen staged the gunshot that hit him during a campaign parade.
Lien, the losing presidential candidate, has filed two petitions in the High Court. One asks for a recount; the other requests a new election.
Lien tried to whip up the crowd at the end of the three-hour rally, warning the president: "Don't underestimate us."
He accused Chen of acting like a dictator by not granting his demand for a special shooting commission.
"The democratic system in Taiwan is bleeding now," he said.