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Fresh clashes in Senegal capital after opposition leader held

(Smoke rose from makeshift barricades in the Senegalese capital. Photo: AFP)

DAKAR, (AFP):- Senegalese police fired tear gas in clashes with supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko on Friday after a court ordered him held in custody following two days of violence over his arrest.

In Dakar’s working class district of Medina, hundreds of young people fought running street battles with riot police and smoke rose from burning tyres at makeshift barricades in the capital city.

Protestors chanted “Free Sonko” on the main Blaise Diagne avenue, the ground strewn with stones, grenade cartridges and burning debris.

In Mbao, in the city’s outer suburbs, looters also ransacked a French chain Auchan supermarket, an AFP correspondent at the scene said. The chain says least 14 stores have been attacked during this week’s unrest.

The arrest of Sonko, popular with young people and seen as a key challenger to President Macky Sall, has sparked the worst unrest in years in a West African state often heralded as a beacon of stability.

At least one person has been killed in protests, shops attacked and cars torched on the streets of Dakar since Sonko was first arrested on Wednesday.

His supporters had called for further protests to coincide with his hearing before a judge on Friday on charges of disturbing order.

“Sonko has been returned to custody over the matter of disturbing public order,” attorney Etienne Ndione told reporters after the hearing.

Tensions were high in the city with hefty police deployments in place around the law courts, presidential palace and National Assembly in the heart of the city.

The United Nations’ special envoy for West Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, appealed for calm, urging authorities “to take the necessary measures to ease tensions” and guarantee the constitutional right to peaceful protest.

Clashes broke out on Wednesday between Sonko’s supporters and police as he made his way to court for another case where he faces rape accusations — allegations that he denies.

Sonko was then arrested on charges of disturbing public order, a development that sparked angry protests in the capital and other cities.

The custody order issued on Friday, which relates specifically to the public order case, expires on Sunday.

He was not charged on Friday in the rape case and returns to court on Monday for questioning over those accusations, his lawyers said.

– Media targeted –

One person died in the southern town of Bignona on Thursday, police said, during clashes there.

Protesters attacked the offices of the government daily Le Soleil and RFM radio station, which belongs to a press group owned by singer and former minister Youssou Ndour. Both media outlets are deemed pro-government.

Sonko, a 46-year-old devout Muslim who is leader of the opposition Pastef party, is popular with many young Senegalese because of his sharp-tongued attacks on the elite, especially President Sall.

He came in third to Sall in the 2019 elections.

But his political future was suddenly clouded last month when rape charges were filed against him by an employee at a salon where, he said, he went to receive back massages.

He denies the accusations and accuses Sall of conspiring to sideline him from politics.

The government late Thursday hit out at “acts of violence, looting and destruction” of property and warned it would take “all necessary measures to maintain public order”.

It also warned “certain media” against pursuing what it called “tendentious” coverage of events.

The regulatory authorities suspended two local television channels, Sen TV and Walf TV, for 72 hours, accusing them of relentlessly broadcasting images of the unrest.

In a statement, Amnesty International called on the Senegalese authorities “to immediately halt arbitrary arrests of opponents and activists, respect freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”

It also urged the authorities to “shed light on the presence of men armed with clubs next to the security forces”.

Netblocks, an organisation that monitors disruption to the Internet, said social media and messaging applications, including Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp, had been affected by restrictions.

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