updated 2/16/2008 3:55:47 AM ET 2008-02-16T08:55:47

Malaysian police fired tear gas and water cannon to break up an illegal rally Saturday by ethnic Indians demanding racial equality ahead of general elections.

More than 60 people -- including two leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, that organized the protest -- have been detained in a police crackdown since late Friday, said lawyer N. Surendran, a Hindraf member.

The group planned to hand roses and a protest note to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, but police banned the rally citing national security.

Barricades were set up along main roads leading to Parliament but more than 200 people managed to gather nearby Saturday shouting "Long Live Hindraf" and "We want our rights."

Tear gas, water canon
Police sprayed water and fired tear gas after the crowd ignored warnings to disperse. At least 20 people, including a Hindraf leader S. Manikavasagam, were detained Saturday, said a police official, who declined to be named citing protocol.

Surendran said at least 40 others were arrested since late Friday.

"This is ridiculous ... We just want to express our right to freely assemble," Surendran told The Associated Press. "This is a massive campaign of intimidation."

It was the first public gathering by the group since police used tear gas and water cannon to crush a Nov. 25 demonstration by at least 20,000 Indians in Kuala Lumpur.

The rally came ahead of general elections on March 8.

The November protest sparked fears of racial tension in this ethnic Malay Muslim-majority nation, and led to the arrest of five Hindraf leaders in December under the Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite imprisonment without trial.

Many Indians allege they are deprived of employment and education opportunities and say their temples are being systematically destroyed.

The government says it does not discriminate against ethnic Indians, who form 8 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people and remain at the bottom of Malaysia's economic and political hierarchy.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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