Four dead in Senegal unrest after opposition leader held

 Senegal | Sat, March 6, 2021 | 8:47 pm

The Senegal government on Friday vowed to use “all means necessary” to return order after police fired tear gas in clashes with supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko as the interior minister said four people had died. The brawls erupted after a court ordered Sonko to be kept in custody. Following two days of demonstrations, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all parties involved to prevent more unrest. “The demonstrations must remain peaceful, and security and police forces must act in accordance with international human rights principles at all times,” his spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.

On Friday, Interior Minister Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome said on television that the government “regrets the loss of four lives” in events “rooted in banditry and insurgency,” accusing Sonko of “issuing calls to violence.” Hundreds of young people fought running street battles with riot police in Dakar’s working-class Medina district earlier this week, and smoke rose from burning tyres at makeshift barricades in the capital city. On the main Blaise Diagne road, protesters chanted “Free Sonko” as bricks, grenade cartridges, and burning debris littered the ground.

“The demonstrations must remain peaceful, and security and police forces must act in accordance with international human rights principles at all times,” his spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York. Looters also ransacked a French supermarket chain Auchan in Mbao, in the city’s outskirts, according to an AFP correspondent on the scene. During this week’s unrest, at least 14 stores have been targeted, according to the chain. The detention of Sonko, who is influential among young people and is seen as a key challenger to President Macky Sall, has caused the worst unrest in years in a West African country that is often praised for its stability.

More demonstrations were planned to coincide with his Friday hearing before a judge on charges of disturbing the peace. After the hearing, attorney Etienne Ndione told reporters, “Sonko has been returned to custody on the issue of violating public order.” Tensions were high in the capital, with large police deployments erected around the city’s law courts, presidential palace, and National Assembly.

On Wednesday, clashes erupted between Sonko’s supporters and police as he made his way to court for another case in which he was accused of rape, which he denies. After that, Sonko was arrested on charges of violating public order, which caused outrage in the capital and other cities. On Sunday, the custody order given on Friday, which is unique to the public order event, will expire.

His lawyers said he was not charged in the rape case on Friday and would return to court on Monday for questions about the allegations. During clashes in the southern town of Bignona on Thursday, one person died, according to police. It was unclear whether or not that death was one of the four listed by Abdoulaye Diome. Protesters set fire to the offices of the government daily Le Soleil and the RFM radio station, both of which are owned by Youssou Ndour, a singer and former minister. Both news organizations are considered pro-government.

Many young Senegalese admire Sonko, a 46-year-old devout Muslim and leader of the opposition Pastef party, for his scathing attacks on the establishment, especially President Sall. In the 2019 elections, he finished third behind Sall. However, his political future was cast into doubt last month when an employee at a salon where he said he went for back massages filed rape charges against him.

He denies the charges and accuses Sall of plotting to keep him out of politics. On Thursday, the government issued a warning to “certain media” about “tendentious” coverage of events. Two local television channels, Sen TV and Walf TV, were suspended for 72 hours by regulatory authorities after they were accused of relentlessly broadcasting photos of the unrest.

Amnesty International issued a statement urging Senegalese authorities to “immediately halt arbitrary arrests of critics and activists, respect freedom of peaceful assembly and speech,” according to the statement. It also urged authorities to “expose the existence of men armed with clubs alongside security forces.” Social networking and messaging apps, such as Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp, have been impacted by bans, according to Netblocks, an organization that tracks Internet disruption.

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