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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bloodshed Erupts in Johannesburg

JOHANNESBURG -- Chaos erupted in downtown Johannesburg on Monday as gunmen, including African National Congress guards, opened fire on hundreds of spear-wielding Zulus marching to protest April's national election. Witnesses and police reported as many as 28 deaths as clashes raged in the city center and outlying areas.

In the worst incident, ANC guards shot into a crowd of Zulus who allegedly tried to storm the group's national headquarters. A witness said he saw nine bodies.

What had been planned as a Zulu nationalist show of force quickly deteriorated into chaos, with snipers firing from buildings at marchers, some of whom returned fire with automatic rifles.

Pedestrians and reporters were pinned down by the shooting as the political violence that has plagued the country's black townships for years moved for the first time into the center of the country's largest city. The bloodshed marked a turning point in the country's political warfare, which has been confined mainly to clashes in townships far from white areas.

The Zulus, opposed to the April 26-28 poll that is likely to put the ANC in power, waved spears and other so-called cultural weapons as they streamed past the ANC's national headquarters in the office building known as Shell House.

"There had been attempts by armed men to storm Shell House," ANC spokesman Carl Niehaus said. He confirmed the shootings but said Zulu marchers fired first and tried to storm the building.

The Zulus dispersed, leaving spears, shields, shoes and machetes lying in the blood. In anger, some began stabbing and clubbing pedestrians nearby.

Niehaus acknowledged that ANC guards killed some people in the street but he gave no figure. No one in the ANC building was injured. Elsewhere downtown, police and witnesses reported 11 fatal shootings. Thousands of Zulu protesters who had gathered in a square outside the library scattered in panic when shots rang out from all sides. Five people died there, including one Zulu protester who fired an AK-47 assault rifle and was shot to death by police who then confiscated the weapon.

Police said three more people died in the Carlton Center, a swank shopping mall, when shooting broke out. Another man was stoned and reportedly killed in a downtown park. Two people died in shootings in other parts of the central city area.

In addition, police said there were unconfirmed reports of seven more deaths in the black township of Soweto, outside Johannesburg, in clashes linked to the march and to a strike call by Zulus who fired indiscriminately from their workers' hostels in the township. Another person died in Kagiso township, also near Johannesburg.

Police rushed reinforcements downtown, and officers with automatic rifles took up positions on downtown street corners. Army troops in riot gear patrolled the city, where virtually all street-level stores were closed because of the Zulu march and traffic was much lighter than on a normal weekday.

Law and Order Minister Hernus Kriel issued a statement demanding that Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini "control and calm his subjects."

Thabo Mbeki, head of the ANC's department of foreign affairs, made a plea for ANC supporters to stay home.

"There's no need for any confrontation," he said. "It's important that everyone should cooperate by staying away from violent areas."

In a statement, Inkatha accused the ANC of planting snipers in the Zulu crowds "to discredit Zulus."