Protests backing opposition leader escalate in Senegal

DAKAR, SENEGAL (AP) — Police fired tear gas in Senegal’s capital to disperse protesting supporters of the country’s main opposition leader, who appeared in court for the first time on Friday since his detention two days ago sparked days of violent demonstrations in which at least four died.

This week’s unrest in Dakar has been the worst seen in years in a country known for its stability. Thousands have also protested nationwide.

Police moved in to disperse crowds throwing objects at security forces and setting tires, pieces of wood and other objects on fire near the tribunal where opposition leader Ousmane Sonko appeared.

Plumes of black smoke rose into the sky as armored vehicles roamed the streets, which cleared briefly for Friday afternoon prayers. Demonstrators reappeared after prayers to be confronted by authorities lobbing tear gas cannisters.

One person was killed on Thursday as police clashed with protesters in Bignona town in the southern Casamance region, according to local leaders there. A second person was killed in the Pikine area of Dakar on Thursday, according to radio station Tfm and a third in the Keur Massar suburb of Dakar the same day.

A demonstrator holds up a Senegalese flag during protests against the arrest of opposition leader and former presidential candidate Ousmane Sonko in Dakar, Senegal. PHOTO: AP

Senegal’s Interior Minister Antoine Felix Diom announced the death of a fourth protester on Friday in the capital following clashes between young people and the defence and security forces. He spoke out against the looting, and said the government would ease curfews imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic as the vaccination campaign continues.

The demonstrations began on Wednesday before Sonko’s court appearance for questioning on accusations of rape. He was detained on the way to the courthouse and arrested for disturbing public order after hundreds of his supporters clashed with police who were blocking unauthorised protests.

His lawyer on Friday said he is now charged with rape and making death threats. They said the judge has also initiated further proceedings to prosecute him for calling for an insurgency. He will appear again in court tomorrow.

Protests have intensified since Sonko’s arrest. Several stores belonging to a major grocery chain, Auchan, have been looted and burned. Total gas stations were also targetted in what appeared to be attacks on businesses with French interests. Demonstrators also attacked Rfm and government newspaper Le Soleil.