Senegal unrest flares again over opposition leader

FILE PHOTO: Senegal opposition leader indicted and released on bail in Dakar
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By Bate Felix and Ngouda Dione

DAKAR (Reuters) - Dozens of protesters clashed with security forces in Senegal's capital, Dakar, on Monday after lawmakers and supporters were blocked from visiting the home of a prominent opposition politician on trial for rape and libel.

Police fired tear gas on demonstrators who built makeshift barricades along one of Dakar's main highways and in one neighbourhood set cars and a ministerial building on fire.

It is the latest round in months of unrest triggered by President Macky Sall's refusal to rule out running for a third term in office and by court cases involving a leading rival, Ousmane Sonko, who denies wrongdoing and says the charges are aimed at ruling him out of presidential elections next February.

Police diverted Sonko to his house on Sunday after a caravan of vehicles including him and some supporters had planned to enter Dakar ahead of a court judgment in the rape trial expected on June 1.

Opposition MP Ramatoulaye Bodian said politicians and mayors had planned to visit Sonko at home on Monday, but were prevented by police who fired tear gas at them. Reuters could not immediately verify that claim.

Senegal's interior minister said Sunday's caravan had not sought permission and was stopped for security reasons.

"Sonko can't leave his house. ... No one can go see him, but why? Where is this democracy?" said El Malick Ndiaye, a spokesman for Sonko's Pastef party.

The police and Sall's office did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

Senegal is seen as one of West Africa's strongest democracies and has a two-term limit for presidents. But critics of Sall worry that he will use a change in the constitution in 2016 as an excuse to reset his mandate and run again, as other long-standing rulers in the region have done.

Sonko has strong support among young people, but his degrading comments last week about a woman who accused him of rape in a massage parlour in 2021 sparked backlash from Senegalese women's groups and dozens of well-known figures.

Last week, a prosecutor in the trial requested a 10-year prison sentence. A guilty verdict could rule Sonko out of the election.

(Additional reporting by Joel Kouam; Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Leslie Adler)