Police commandos stormed a vacant office building occupied by displaced tenants in central Seoul early Tuesday, sparking a clash and a blaze that killed six people and injured 23, authorities said.
A team of 100 commandos raided the five-story building in Seoul's Yongsan neighborhood early Tuesday morning by landing on the roof in a shipping container to break up a protest against a redevelopment plan for the area, Seoul police said.
The commandos and some 1,400 riot police were mobilized for the faceoff against some 40 people who had been camped out at the building for days, officials said. The protesters were tenants and small business owners pushing for better compensation from construction companies redeveloping the building, a tenants' rights group said.
The protesters fought back by hurling Molotov cocktails at police and out the building's windows, police said. A fire then engulfed the rooftop within minutes, sending flames and black smoke shooting into the sky and trapping people inside, witnesses said.
Firefighters extinguished the blaze in about an hour, authorities said. Several dozen people inside the building were evacuated and 28 people were arrested, police said.
Yongsan Police Chief Baek Dong-san said five bodies were found, including one police officer. Seoul police later said the death toll stood at six dead.
The incident comes as President Lee Myung-bak tries to win back public support amid an economic crisis and six months after the violent street protests that erupted over allowing U.S. beef imports last year.
The fire comes two days after Lee replaced his police chief who had been widely criticized for being too hard on anti-government protesters. Lee on Monday also made sweeping changes to his top finance officials.
"How can this happen in a democracy?" Yang Mi-ok, a member of the tenants' association, said outside the building as she denounced police over the deadly crackdown.
One of the dead was the former owner of a watch shop who had been forced to vacate the building. Another was the manager of a now-defunct restaurant, said Kim Jang-ki, a member of the Tenants Association who said he knew both men.
Baek said six protesters were injured, with one in serious condition, while 17 police officers suffered injuries. He said one other police officer remained unaccounted for.
President Lee ordered a probe of the incident. Investigators were at the scene Tuesday, with hundreds of riot police blocking the entrance. Residents left white chrysanthemums, a traditional Korean symbol of grief, at a makeshift mourning site outside the building.
Prime Minister Han Seung-soo called the incident "extremely unfortunate" and expressed regret over the deaths.
"The government will thoroughly investigate why and how this has happened," he said in a televised statement. "We will uncover the truth, leaving not a single dot of suspicion."
Police had earlier said the protesters were squatters who had been occupying the building since Monday.
The tenants' association said the protesters were employees and business owners unhappy with plans to redevelop the area in the heart of the South Korean capital. Many of the dilapidated buildings in the neighborhood have been torn down to make way for new businesses, real estate agents said.
Molotov cocktails were a common feature of the pro-democracy protests in South Korea in the 1980s but are rarely used against police today. Paint thinner used in the makeshift explosives may have helped fuel the fire, Baek said.
Tuesday's clash was one of the most violent in recent years between police and protesters. South Koreans took to the streets last year over the government's decision to reopen the market to U.S. beef but no one was killed in the near-daily protests.
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