South Korean President Lee Myung-bak expressed deep regret yesterday at the “heartbreaking” death of six people in a clash between protesters and police.
Hundreds took to the streets in Seoul’s city center overnight to demonstrate against the loss of life in an apartment block blaze in the capital, with police using water cannon at one point to disperse groups hurling bricks.
“It is heartbreaking and very lamentable that lives were lost in such a tragic incident,” officials quoted Lee as saying in a meeting with top aides.
“Such an incident should never happen again,” he said, adding the government must find out exactly what happened before holding anyone responsible.
Tuesday morning’s fatal clash happened at an apartment block where between 30 and 40 people had staged a sit-in to protest a district redevelopment plan.
Police said masked protesters armed with firebombs and inflammable paint thinner set the rooftop ablaze as officers from a special commando squad tried to evict them.
They said they confiscated 150 firebombs, 40 bottles of hydrochloric acid, 1,000 bricks and 700 balls to be used as ammunition for slingshots.
Police arrested 25 people at the apartment building.
Prosecutors say only seven of these were local residents, while the rest were from a group called the National Alliance of Squatters.
The main opposition party, families of the victims and a squatters’ association accused police of using excessive force in the operation.
Seoul police said yesterday they detained two people after the overnight city center scuffles, but had no figures for injuries.
Witnesses said that dozens of demonstrators were slightly injured.
Tens of thousands took to Seoul’s streets last summer to rally against a plan to resume US beef imports, rocking Lee’s conservative government. The protests were initially spurred by fears of mad cow disease but later took on an increasingly anti-government flavor.