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Tense Senegal braces for clashes over opposition leader’s arrest

Senegale gendarmes take part in an operation to move out university students, who support arrested opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, from the “Centre des œuvres universitaires” (COUD) in Dakar on March 4, 2021. – Senegalese police clashed with supporters of Ousmane Sonko, leaving one person dead in the south of the country, a police official said. Sonko, leader of the opposition Pastef party and former presidential candidate, is considered a key potential challenger for President Macky Sall in elections in three years. Sonko denies the rape charges filed against him last month by an employee at a salon where he received massages. (Photo by Seyllou / AFP)

Government buildings in the Senegalese capital Dakar were under tight security on Friday as an opposition leader whose arrest has sparked two days of unrest was scheduled to face accusations of rape.

Two days of clashes between supporters of Ousmane Sonko and police have claimed at least one life, while two media outlets deemed close to the government have been attacked by protesters.

Hefty police deployments were in place around the law courts, presidential palace and National Assembly in central Dakar on Friday, an AFP reporter saw.

Sonko’s camp called for fresh protests to coincide with a hearing into rape accusations against him — allegations that he denies.

Sonko was detained on Wednesday on charges of disturbing public order as his motorcade, followed by hundreds of supporters, headed for the initially scheduled hearing.

His arrest sparked the worst unrest in years in a country that has been widely seen as a beacon of stability in West Africa.

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

A local official in Yeumbeul in the Dakar suburbs said that a second person there had died, and social media said the individual was a teenager. This account was not immediately confirmed by the authorities.

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 and firebrand speaker, is leader of the opposition Pastef party and a former presidential candidate who came in third in the 2019 elections.

Critical of Senegal’s ruling elite and popular among the young, he is considered a key potential challenger to President Macky Sall in elections due in three years.

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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