Senegal rocked by more unrest as police clash with opposition protesters

Supporters of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko clash with security forces ahead of his court appearance in Dakar, Senegal March 16, 2023. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

DAKAR (Reuters) -Police fired tear gas at stone-hurling protestor during street clashes in Senegal's capital on Thursday, ahead of a court case involving a prominent opposition politician that has triggered widespread anger among the West African country's youth.

Protestor in Dakar burned tyres and set fire to buses and a large supermarket, the latest in a series of outbreaks of violence that have shaken Senegal's reputation as a bastion of stable democracy, just months ahead of a presidential election.

Thursday's clashes began when supporters of presidential hopeful Ousmane Sonko were blocked from accompanying his motorcade to the courthouse where he faces trial for libel.

Sonko, 48, who came third in the 2019 presidential election, is also charged with raping a beauty salon employee in 2021 and making deaths threats against her. He denies all wrongdoing and says the accusations are politically motivated to stop him running in the February 2024 polls.

Much of the anger on the street is targeted towards President Macky Sall, whose failure to rule out running for a third term in office has incensed many.

Senegal's constitution only allows two terms, but some fear that Sall will use a recent tweak to the constitution to reset his mandate, repeating a tactic used by other rulers to extend power elsewhere in the region.

"We elected Macky Sall to work, not to establish a dictatorship. He must leave Sonko alone, if he does not leave him alone we will burn the country," a Sonko supporter said.

Tensions have flared ahead of Sonko's court appearance this week, with three days of protest. More than 10,000 supporters gathered at a field in Dakar on Tuesday to cheer on Sonko.

The former tax inspector urged his supporters to join him in court on Thursday for the hearing. But his convoy and supporters were stopped along a main road by police.

Sonko was forced out of his car and bundled into a police armoured personnel carrier and driven to court, triggering the clashes.

Sonko supporters accuse Sall of seeking to eliminate him from the competition with a guilty verdict.

The libel case was brought by Senegal's tourism minister who said Sonko had allegedly accused him of embezzlement.

(Reporting by Bate Felix, Ngouda Dione and Diadie Ba; Writing by Sofia Christensen; Editing by Edward McAllister and Alex Richardson)

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