By Josephus Olu-Mammah and Umaru Fofana
FREETOWN (Reuters) - Police fired tear gas at an angry crowd in Sierra Leone on Saturday after they threw stones at officials during a three-day national lockdown that the government hopes will accelerate the end of the Ebola epidemic, residents said.
Sierra Leone has reported nearly 12,000 Ebola cases and more than 3,000 deaths since the worst epidemic in history was detected in neighbouring Guinea a year ago. New cases have fallen sharply since a peak of more than 500 a week in December but the government says the lockdown, its second, is necessary to identify the last cases and to buck a worrying trend towards complacency.
Officials have ordered the six million residents to stay inside on pain of arrest as hundreds of health official go door-to-door looking for hidden patients and educating residents about the haemorrhagic fever.
Hundreds of people left their homes in the Devil Hole neighbourhood outside the capital to gather at a food collection point. Some residents complained they had not received food and fighting broke out until police arrived to scatter the crowd.
Elsewhere in the dense slums of eastern and central Freetown, residents defied the lockdown rules and wandered out onto the streets in search of supplies.
"We have exhausted this morning all we could manage to stock up," said 51-year-old Ibrahim Kanu, a father of six told Reuters, as he struggled for rice in the crowd at East Brook Street in Freetown.
At Kissy Road in the east of Freetown, mostly women and children wandered into the twisting streets with buckets and yellow jerry cans to replenish water supplies. One man wandered out to bathe in a sewer, a Reuters reporter said.
Some charities have criticised lockdowns and quarantines as heavy-handed and counter-productive, pointing to riots in neighbouring Liberia's capital last August in which a teenaged boy was killed.
On Friday, several residents who left their homes without permission were taken into detention on Friday. Sierra Leone authorities have made exemptions for prayer.
Other health officials said the campaign was making progress.
"Households visited have been responsive to the messages and the distribution of soap has been well received," said Red Cross emergency health coordinator John Fleming.
(Reporting by Josephus Olu-Mammah and Umaru Fofana; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Stephen Powell)