PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Riot police in Cambodia clashed with protesters in the nation's capital on Sunday, shooting one to death and wounding six more, opposition activists said, in a new wave of demonstrations against Prime Minister Hun Sen's government following a disputed July election.
The demonstrations in Phnom Penh, which also left one policeman injured, marked one of the biggest challenges yet against the autocratic rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for nearly three decades. They also raised fears that even bloodier days could lay ahead, with opposition leader Sam Rainsy vowing to keep up the pressure until the country's post-election deadlock is resolved.
Although the government allowed Sunday's rally to go ahead, it had warned protesters to stay within the confines of the capital's Freedom Park, where tens of thousands of people had gathered peacefully earlier Sunday to hear Sam Rainsy speak.
Thousands of opposition supporters marched across various parts of the city anyway, and police – apparently under orders not to intervene – mostly let them go ahead.
The marches turned violent in the afternoon when about 200 demonstrators tried to dismantle a barricade of razor wire and roadblocks that had been erected along a river in eastern Phnom Penh to keep them away from the Royal Palace. Police fired water cannons and then smoke grenades, and demonstrators responded with rocks, shoes and other objects.
One policeman was hit in the head with a small iron bar. Three protesters were also injured, according to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
Shortly after that clash, Sam Rainsy visited the scene and urged the crowd – which by then had swelled to nearly 1,000 people – to stay calm and return to the main protest site.
But in a separate incident late Sunday night, police fired more smoke bombs to disperse another group of protesters who had tried to remove another barricade at a downtown overpass that heads toward the opposition's headquarters, witnesses said.
Security forces fired into the crowds, killing one person and wounding at least two more, according to Ny Chariya of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association. He said several demonstrators were also detained.
Mu Sochua, an opposition leader, said the dead man was shot in the forehead. She said three people were wounded, two of them shot and one bludgeoned.
Sunday's rally came one day after Cambodia's king brought Hun Sen face to face with Sam Rainsy for the first time in years, urging the two rivals to resolve their conflict over the election results peacefully for the sake of national stability. No agreement was reached, but the two are expected to meet again Monday.
"It's going to be very tense," Mu Sochua said.
"The blockades seem to be a signal to intimidate us, the protest, and the government doesn't seem to be willing to negotiate in a peaceful way," she said. "Tomorrow they're going to the negotiating table, but I'm not sure that will lead to peaceful negotiation."
Political analysts say the weekend protest is mostly aimed at appeasing angry supporters and strengthening the opposition's hand in negotiations with Hun Sen. Although demonstrators are pushing for an independent investigation of the election results, the government has no legal means of meeting the request now that the results have been ratified.
"Their ballots were stolen and they are asking for justice," Sam Rainsy said of his supporters in a speech at Sunday's rally.
He said the protest, initially planned to last three days, would continue until the opposition's demands for justice are met.
Sam Rainsy's Cambodia National Rescue Party set up tents and brought in food supplies, intent on defying a government order to leave by nightfall. Police Lt. Gen. Choun Sovann said demonstrators would be allowed to stay overnight at the park and police would not intervene.
Fears of violence have risen amid a visible increase of military forces in Phnom Penh since the election and the discovery Friday of explosives planted by unknown people near Freedom Park.
Official results announced last weekend gave Hun Sen's party 68 seats in the National Assembly and Sam Rainsy's party 55 – a dramatic opposition increase from the 29 seats it won in the previous election.
On Saturday, King Norodom Sihamoni also urged lawmakers from both parties to attend the opening session of parliament on Sept. 23. The opposition has said it will boycott the session, and Sam Rainsy repeated that promise Sunday.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said talks between the rivals this week could have focused on allotting the opposition several parliamentary leadership positions, reforming the electoral commission and allowing Sam Rainsy to take a seat in parliament.
Just before July's disputed vote, the king pardoned the then-self-exiled Sam Rainsy at the request of Hun Sen – likely under international pressure. He returned to Cambodia before the election, but too late to register as a candidate himself.