Death toll in Senegal protests rises to 15 as opposition supporters clash with police

Dakar, Senegal — The death toll from days of clashes between Senegalese police and supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko has risen to 15, including two security officers, the government said on Saturday.

While the Dakar was calmer on Saturday, the clashes continued in the evening. In residential areas, protesters threw stones at the police, barricaded roads and set tires on fire. The army patrolled the streets while the police fired tear gas at the demonstrators, checked and detained the troublemakers.

Residents lurked above the roofs of the buildings, protected by cover, watching the clashes.

Clashes first erupted on Thursday after Sonko was convicted of corrupting young people, but acquitted of charges of raping and threatening to kill a woman working in a massage parlor. Sonkó, who did not participate in Dakar, was sentenced to two years in prison. His attorney said no arrest warrants have yet been issued.

Sonko came third in the 2019 presidential election in Senegal and is popular among the country’s youth. His supporters say his legal problems are part of a government effort to nominate him in the 2024 presidential election.

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Sonko is considered to be President Macky Sall’s main rival and has urged Sall to make it public that he does not seek a third term.

The international community called on the government of Senegal to resolve the tension. France’s European and Foreign Affairs Ministry said it was “extremely concerned about the violence” and called for a resolution to the crisis in line with Senegal’s long democratic tradition.

Rights groups condemned the government crackdown, which included arbitrary arrests and restrictions on social media. Social networking sites such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter, which were used by the protesters to incite violence, were suspended for almost two days.

The US State Department issued a statement condemning the violence.

“Senegal’s strong record of democratic governance, rule of law and peaceful coexistence is something that Senegalese people can be justly proud of. We encourage all parties to express their views in a peaceful manner,” said Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

Senegalese blame the government for the violence and loss of life.

A woman, Seynabou Diop, told The Associated Press on Saturday that her 21-year-old son, Khadim, was killed during the protests, shot in the chest.

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“I feel deep pain. What happens is difficult. Our children are dying. I never thought I would have to go through this,” she said.

It was the first time that his son, a disciplined and kind mechanic, had joined the protests, having rushed out of the house as soon as he heard that Sonko had been convicted.

“I think Macky Sall is responsible. If he had talked to the Senegalese, especially the youth, maybe these problems wouldn’t exist,” said Diop. The Associated Press could not verify the cause of death. According to the family, an autopsy is underway.

In Senegal, it is a crime to corrupt young people, which includes having sex with someone under the age of 21 in a position of power, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $6,000.

Under Senegalese law, Sonko’s conviction bars him from running in next year’s elections, said Bamba Cisse, another defense lawyer. But the government said Sonko could seek a retrial if he is jailed. It was unclear when he would be taken into custody.

Analysts say that if the violence continues, it could threaten the country’s institutions.

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“Senegalese would never have thought in their worst nightmares that they would witness the prevailing forms of apocalyptic and irrational violence,” said Alioune Tine, founder of the Afrikajom Center, a West African think tank.

“The most shared feelings about the current situation are fear, stress, exhaustion and helplessness. That is why people want peace now,” he said.

The West African country was seen as a bastion of democratic stability in the region.

Sonkó has not been heard from or seen since the verdict. In a statement on Friday, his PASTEF-Patriots party called on Senegalese to “strengthen and intensify constitutional resistance” while President Sall leaves.

Government spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana said the damage caused by the months-long protests had cost the country millions of dollars. He argued that the protesters themselves were a threat to democracy.

“These calls (to protest) are a bit like the anti-republican nature of these movements, which hide behind social networks and do not believe in the foundations of democracy, which are elections, freedom of expression, but also resources, (legal ) offers from our system,” said Fofana.