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Protesters and police clash in massive Czech demonstration

PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia -- Army troops in armored vehicles and police in riot gear quelled the nation's largest demonstration in 20 years, beating people with truncheons and firing tear gas into tens of thousands of people demanding an end to communist rule.

The massive demonstration Friday night began as a student-led march to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of a student activist, but ended in bloodshed and the arrest of an unspecified number of people as pro-democracy demonstrators chanted 'We want freedom' and called for the abolition of the Communist Party.

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'Police in armored personnel carriers literally pinned the crowd in,' said Felicity Goodey, a freelance journalist working for the British Broadcasting Corp. 'What they did is made them run the gauntlet between the police. I saw people kneed in the groin, pushed to the ground, blood streaming from their faces.'

Witnesses and officials estimated the crowd at between 20,000 and 50,000 people.

An unspecified number of people, most of them students, were injured and many were detained, witnesses said.

The official news agency CTK said, 'The police had to restore order.'

'We want freedom' and 'People of Prague revolt' were the chants echoed by the crowd in the city's largest demonstration since 1969.

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The crowd sang the Czech national anthem as it marched toward Wenceslaus Square -- the location of many anti-state demonstrations in the past -- which was cordoned off by riot police in full gear.

The crowd also yelled, '(Communist Party leader Milos) Jakes should be dumped into the trash basket,' and 'We want the abolition of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.'

Students were given permission to stage the rally to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Jan Opletal, who was killed by the Nazis in 1939 when he protested the closure of Czechoslovak universities.

At one point, the crowd chanted excerpts of a speech by Opletal, who once said, 'He who is afraid should stay at home, but we must go forward.'

The rally was organized by the official Socialist Youth Union and was permitted by the authorities on condition the students would march to the distant Vysehrad Castle, not Wenceslaus Square, but the students and other marchers disobeyed the order.

The demonstration erupted despite an announcement by the government earlier this week that it would ease travel restrictions for citizens who want to travel outside of the Soviet bloc.

One representative of the official communist youth organization tried to address the crowd, saying Czechoslovakia is implementing reforms similar to those of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, but the crowd booed and whistled him off.

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'We are fed up with lies,' the crowd chanted. 'Stop beating students.'

'We want new government,' others yelled.

When the police charged the crowd, the students shouted, 'Down with police and army.'

CTK said, 'The well-known individuals from the opposition groups used the demonstration for anti-state purposes to destablize the situation in the country.'

At one point, the crowd chanted, 'We want to be free for Christmas' and 'Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and where are we.'

Witnesses said police and army troops showed restraint at first, but after a 25-minute standoff unleashed dogs on the demonstrators, then massed at one end of the street for an assault on the crowd.

'Girls were screaming in hysterics, shaking with fear,' Goodey said. 'I have never seen anything like it. They were actually beating them in front of me.'

Goodey said she was temporarily detained when she refused to give up a tape she was making of the events.

'I showed the policeman my (journalist's identification) card and he snatched it away and put it in his pocket,' she said. 'I dont speak Czech and he does not speak English, but it was obvious he wanted to exchange the tape for the press accreditation.'

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