Security forces killed at least 16 demonstrators in Abidjan on Thursday as a massive march to demand implementation of a peace deal got under way in Ivory Coast, witnesses and opposition officials said.
Government officials denied soldiers or police had caused any fatalities.
The protesters were killed in different parts of the West African city as security forces tried to disperse crowds, said Bacongo Cisse, a spokesman for the main opposition Rally of the Republicans party. Witnesses gave similar accounts.
Djedje Mady, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast, raised the death toll to 16 — up from 12 — saying "very many people were wounded by bullets" and a number of others were arrested.
Despite the violence and a government ban on public demonstrations, opposition leaders vowed to press on.
"The demonstration will continue. We will do everything to arrive in Plateau," Cisse said, referring to the march's destination — the downtown business district that is home to the presidential palace and key ministries.
Cisse said two of dead were shot Thursday by a helicopter gunship in the southern Port Bouet neighborhood.
The march was called to press President Laurent Gbagbo to fully implement a 2003 peace deal and would be the first large-scale protest against the government since the end of a nine-month civil war last year.
Gbagbo's government, which has banned all demonstrations, accuses rebels who control the north of plotting a coup d'etat together with opposition parties — charges both groups deny.
Jeannot Koudou, an adviser to the security minister, said "security forces intervened to maintain order," firing tear gas and injuring several people. Asked whether any of them had fired into crowds, he said: "It's false. It's not true."
Integration Minister Mel Theodore blamed the opposition for the violence.
"In insisting on their wish to demonstrate, they are trying to create troubles for the government, which is at the stage where it wants reconciliation," he said.
Ivory Coast has been divided between a rebel-held north and a loyalist south since the civil war broke out in September 2002. A French-brokered peace agreement in January 2003 brought an end to fighting, and the war was officially declared over in July.
But with tensions still high, the United Nations is preparing to deploy 6,240 U.N. peacekeepers to early April to back around 4,000 French and 1,400 West African troops already in the country.
In the northern suburb of Abobo, the bloodied corpse of one policeman lay in a courtyard where security forces were trying to break up gathering crowds.
The policeman was among a group of officers who fired at stone-hurling demonstrators, but retreated as protesters gave chase, said Mady Traore, a resident of the area.
"We followed him and he entered a courtyard. We broke down the door and came up behind him, and knocked him down with a brick," Traore said. "When he fell down, one of our friends shot him."
Nearby, witnesses said mobs burned tires and threw rocks at security forces. Paramilitary police "shot in into the crowd. I saw two people fall," one man said on condition of anonymity.
Authorities stepped up security in Abidjan ahead of the march, deploying armored cars around the presidential palace and patrolling the skies with MI-24 helicopter gunships. Military vehicles brimming with soldiers and police patrolled the streets.
The downtown business district, where the palace and key ministries are located, has been declared off-limits by presidential guards who've warned they would defend the area at all costs.
In a bid to keep residents home, the government declared Thursday a public holiday and ordered all schools closed. The U.S. Embassy warned of possible violence, and called on its citizens to stay home.
Ghana's President John Kufuor flew to Abidjan Wednesday in a last-minute bid to resolve the rising tensions, meeting with Gbagbo and opposition leaders. Kufuor came as head of the 15-country Economic Community of West African States.
"This demonstration must not bring into question the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers," Kufuor said.
For decades, Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer, was regarded as a haven of stability and prosperity in a region wracked by coup d'etats and civil wars. That reputation was shattered with a 1999 coup, which ushered in a series of uprisings.