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Fresh clashes in Dakar as police hold off protesters


DAKAR: Senegal riot police clashed with rock-throwing protesters on Saturday, firing teargas and water cannon for the fourth day running as fresh violence hit the capital a week before highly divisive polls.

The opposition has been banned from protesting in central Dakar, leading to a second day of cat-and-mouse battles with police in the seaside capital who are trying to prevent them from gathering at Independence Square.

Police said a young Senegalese man died Saturday of wounds sustained in a demonstration the previous day in the country's second city of Kaolack.

The protesters are demanding 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade leave office as fury mounts over his candidacy for a third term in power in February polls.

Earlier in the afternoon the streets bustled despite the threat of a protest but quickly chaos erupted as a group of about 100 people converged in Avenue William Ponty leading up to Independence Square, which was cordoned off by riot police.

With their hands held in a cross above their head they chanted in Wolof "Na Dem Na Dem" (He must leave) referring to Wade. Police fired teargas to disperse them and they riposted with rocks.

A short while later several black pickups, sirens blaring, bearing the image of presidential candidate and former prime minister Idrissa Seck, and loaded with men in black balaclavas drove up and started throwing rocks at police.

A water cannon came in and more volleys of breath-stopping teargas choked protesters who went running off into side streets.

Youths regrouped from a sidestreet and marched straight towards the square, again meeting fierce resistance from police. Debris and wooden tables used by market women were dragged into the road and set alight by protesters.

Red Cross reported that two people had been injured.

Meanwhile the young man killed in Kaolack was reported in local media as having being hit by a teargas grenade fired by officers during a protest against the alleged desecration by police of a Dakar mosque.

Violence also erupted Friday night in the western city of Tivaouane, capital of the nation's largest Islamic brotherhood, the Tidianes, after police threw teargas into one of their mosques in Dakar.

The APS news agency reported that the mayor's office was torched and protesters set up burning barricades.

For three days protesters have attempted to rally in Dakar and police have dispersed them, using teargas, rubber bullets and water cannon.

International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) president Souhay Belhassen said in a joint statement with local rights bodies: "The authorities must come to their senses and allow political and public expression of opponents and citizens or be seen as an authoritarian regime muzzling democracy."

"We reiterate the peaceful nature of M23, but as long as the protests are banned, clashes can be expected," said movement spokesman Abdoul Aziz Diop.

The FIDH said the ban on protests was illegal as the electoral code allows candidates to "freely organise meetings and protests..." when they give 24 hours notice to authorities.

"On the eve of such an important date for Senegal, the country's highest authorities must act responsibly and calming, allowing for the free expression of democracy as required by law," read the statement.

The rights bodies said Wade's latest term in office had been "marked by regressions in human rights".

Tomaso Caprioglio, deputy chief of the European Union observer mission, kept watch as troops voted, saying the EU mission "deplored all violent acts and hopes the situation will normalise in the coming days to allow for a calm and peaceful election" on February 26.

Despite having served two terms in office, a limit he introduced, Wade says additional changes to the constitution in 2008 mean he can serve two more mandates, giving him more time to finish his "Grand Projects".

The country's highest legal body approved his candidacy on January 27, sparking riots in the capital and elsewhere that left four people dead.

Since the official election campaign kicked off, Wade has swept energetically through the country promising universities, roads, airports and massive agricultural projects to win over five million registered voters.

The 13 opposition contenders, which include three of Wade's former prime ministers, failed to find a consensus candidate before the campaign.

Some 23,000 soldiers and paramilitary police began voting Saturday.

- AFP/de

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