A protester throwing a tear gas canister back at police in Kuala Lumpur, April 28, 2012..
A protester throwing a tear gas canister back at police in Kuala Lumpur, April 28, 2012.. Photo by AP
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Police clashed with demonstrators on Saturday during one of Malaysia's largest street rallies in years, with protesters demanding fair rules for upcoming national elections.

At least 25,000 demonstrators swamped Malaysia's capital, hoping to pressure Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition - which has held power for nearly 55 years - to overhaul electoral policies before polls that could be held as early as June.

The police said in a statement that 222 people were arrested in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city. Lawyers said most were expected to be released soon after having their details recorded, but it was not immediately clear if they would be charged later with any offense.

Officials said three protesters and 20 police were injured in the demonstration, where police used tear gas and chemical-laced water during disturbances.

Authorities insist the elections will be free and fair, rejecting activists' claims that the Election Commission is biased and that voter registration lists are tainted with fraudulent names.

Demonstrators wearing yellow T-shirts, waving banners and chanting slogans poured into downtown Kuala Lumpur, massing near a public square that police had sealed off with barbed wire and barricades.

"I'm here because I'm a Malaysian and I love my country," said information technology manager Burrd Lim. "There's no election that's perfect, but I want one that's fair enough."

The demonstration remained peaceful for several hours, prompting organizers to declare it a success and ask people to head home. But when a small group appeared to suddenly breach the police barriers, authorities began firing tear gas and water laced with stinging chemicals at the crowd.

Baton-wielding police backed by trucks mounted with water cannon sporadically fired tear gas at some demonstrators for at least an hour, before much of the crowd was dispersed. People fled into streets and stores nearby, leaving shoes, bottles and other belongings scattered on the ground.

Video footage by independent news website Malaysiakini showed angry demonstrators overturning a police car that allegedly hit two people.

Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that police acted "with utmost restraint," but opposition leaders and rights groups said the use of tear gas was unjustified.

"By launching a crackdown on peaceful protesters on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian government is once again showing its contempt for its people's basic rights and freedoms," said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Asia.

Federal police spokesman Rasdi Ramli estimated there were about 25,000 demonstrators, but many witnesses and some Malaysian news organizations said there were far more. Malaysiakini said there were 100,000, while The Sun newspaper estimated 80,000.

"We all want change today," said Ambiga Sreenevasan, one of the demonstration's leaders.

The rally's organizers have also sought longer election campaigning periods and changes to ensure citizens living abroad can cast ballots, as well as international observers for the polls and fairer access for all political parties to the government-linked media.

But despite the large turnout for Saturday's demonstration, there was no indication that Prime Minister Najib's National Front coalition would agree to major changes to satisfy the activists.

"If [elections] are not clean, not fair, show the evidence," Najib was quoted as saying by the national news agency, Bernama. "We do not want to be elected through cheating. We are a government chosen by the people. The majority of the people chose us because they know [we] are better" than the opposition.

After about 20,000 demonstrators staged a similar rally that was also dispersed by tear gas last July, authorities established a panel to study electoral regulations and agreed for voters to have their fingers stained with indelible ink while casting ballots to curb multiple voting. However, activists say those decisions fall short of what's needed.

Speculation has intensified that Najib might dissolve Parliament next month.