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Police fire tear gas on protesters

Police have unleashed tear gas and chemical-laced water at thousands of demonstrators who staged one of Malaysia's largest street rallies in years, demanding fair rules for national elections expected soon.

At least 25,000 demonstrators swamped Malaysia's largest city, hoping to pressure Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition - which has held power for nearly 55 years - to overhaul electoral policies before polls that could be held as early as June.

Authorities insist the elections will be free and fair, rejecting activists' claims that the election commission is biased and that voter registration lists are tainted with fraudulent names.

Demonstrators wearing yellow T-shirts, waving banners and chanting slogans poured into central Kuala Lumpur, massing near a public square that police had sealed off with barbed wire and barricades.

"I'm here because I'm a Malaysian and I love my country," said information technology manager Burrd Lim. "There's no election that's perfect, but I want one that's fair enough."

Authorities had refused to allow an opposition-backed pressure group that organised the rally to use Independence Square, a nationally renowned venue that hosts parades and patriotic celebrations.

The demonstration remained peaceful for several hours, prompting organisers to declare it a success and ask people to head home. But when a small group appeared to suddenly breach the police barriers, authorities began firing tear gas and water laced with stinging chemicals at the crowd.

Baton-wielding police backed by trucks mounted with water cannon sporadically fired tear gas at some demonstrators for at least an hour before much of the crowd was dispersed. People fled into streets and stores nearby, leaving shoes, bottles and other belongings scattered on the ground.

Authorities were seen detaining dozens of people, with Malaysian media reports saying as many as 60 were arrested. Police said one protester snatched a pistol from its personnel during the chaos and others destroyed public property.

Video footage by independent news website Malaysiakini showed angry demonstrators overturning a police car that allegedly hit two people. Several people elsewhere were seen to have fainted, but no major injuries were immediately reported.

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