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

A demonstrator throws a rock at police during a protest at a neighborhood in Dakar, Senegal, on Saturday. The clashes first broke out after opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was convicted of corrupting youth and sentenced to two years in prison.
Leo Correa
A demonstrator throws a rock at police during a protest at a neighborhood in Dakar, Senegal, on Saturday. The clashes first broke out after opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was convicted of corrupting youth and sentenced to two years in prison.

DAKAR, Senegal — The number of people killed in days of clashes between Senegalese police and supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko has now risen to 15, including two security officers, the government said on Saturday.

While Dakar was calmer on Saturday, clashes continued into the evening. In residential neighborhoods, protesters threw rocks at police, barricaded roads and set tires on fire. The army patrolled the streets as police fired tear gas at the demonstrators, inspecting and detaining people deemed to be causing trouble.

Residents peered over the rooftops of buildings, both shielding for cover and watching the clashes.

The clashes first broke out on Thursday, after Sonko was convicted of corrupting youth but acquitted on charges of raping a woman who worked at a massage parlor and making death threats against her. Sonko, who didn't attend his trial in Dakar, was sentenced to two years in prison. His lawyer said a warrant hadn't yet been issued for his arrest.

Sonko came third in Senegal's 2019 presidential election and is popular with the country's youth. His supporters maintain his legal troubles are part of a government effort to derail his candidacy in the 2024 presidential election.

Sonko is considered President Macky Sall's main competition and has urged Sall to state publicly that he won't seek a third term in office.

The international community has called on Senegal's government to resolve the tensions. France's ministry for Europe and foreign affairs said it was "extremely concerned by the violence" and called for a resolution to this crisis, in keeping with Senegal's long democratic tradition.

Rights groups have condemned the government crackdown, which has included arbitrary arrests and restrictions on social media. Some social media sites used by demonstrators to incite violence, such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter have been suspended, for nearly two days.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement deploring the violence.

"Senegal's strong record of democratic governance, rule of law, and peaceful coexistence is something for which the Senegalese people can be rightfully proud. We urge all parties to voice their views in a peaceful manner," departmental spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

Senegalese are blaming the government for the violence and the loss of lives.

One woman, Seynabou Diop, told The Associated Press on Saturday that her 21-year-old son, Khadim, was killed in the protests, shot by a bullet to the chest.

"I feel deep pain. What's happening is hard. Our children are dying. I never thought I'd have to go through this," she said.

This was the first time her son, a disciplined and kind mechanic, had joined in the protests, rushing out of the house as soon as he heard Sonko was convicted, she said.

"I think Macky Sall is responsible. If he'd talked to the Senegalese people, especially young people, maybe we wouldn't have all these problems," said Diop. The Associated Press cannot verify the cause of death. The family said an autopsy was underway.

Corrupting young people, which includes using one's position of power to have sex with people under the age of 21, is a criminal offense in Senegal, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $6,000.

Under Senegalese law, Sonko's conviction would bar him from running in next year's election, said Bamba Cisse, another defense lawyer. However, the government said that Sonko could ask for a retrial once he was imprisoned. It was unclear when he would be taken into custody.

If violence continues, it could threaten the country's institutions, say analysts.

"Never in their worst forms of nightmare (would) Senegalese have thought of witnessing the prevailing forms of apocalyptic and irrational violence," said Alioune Tine, founder of Afrikajom Center, a West African think tank.

"The most shared feeling about the current situation is fear, stress, exhaustion and helplessness. Thus what the people are now seeking for is peace," he said.

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

Sonko hasn't been heard from or seen since the verdict. In a statement Friday, his PASTEF-Patriots party called on Senegalese to "amplify and intensify the constitutional resistance" until President Sall leaves office.

Government spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana said the damage caused by months of demonstrations had cost the country millions of dollars. He argued the protesters posed a threat to democracy.

"These calls (to protest), it's a bit like the anti-republican nature of all these movements that hide behind social networks and don't believe in the foundations of democracy, which are elections, freedom of expression, but also the resources that our (legal) system offers," Fofana said.

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