DAKAR: Senegalese police clashed with supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko on Thursday, leaving one person dead, a police official said — the first death in protests sparked by Sonko’s arrest the previous day.
Sonko, leader of the opposition Pastef party and former presidential candidate, is considered a key potential challenger to President Macky Sall in elections in three years.
He was detained on Wednesday for disturbing public order as demonstrations broke out ahead of his court appearance on a rape charge, triggering the worst unrest seen in years in a country generally known for its stability.
Angry protesters attacked the headquarters of media deemed close to the government Thursday evening, while authorities suspended two private television stations, accusing them of “stirring up hatred and violence.”
The death happened after clashes on Thursday in Bignona town in the southern Casamance region, the police official said.
“We still don’t know the cause, it is under investigation,” said the official who asked not to be identified.
Four police were also injured in the fighting.
Dozens of students holed themselves up in Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop University on Thursday afternoon, where they threw concrete blocks at police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
The managing editor of state-owned Le Soleil newspaper told AFP that its headquarters had been targeted in the evening.
“We were attacked with Molotov cocktails and huge rocks, by many assailants. They smashed windows and vehicles,” Daouda Mane said.
A journalist from radio station RFM, part of a private press group owned by singer and former minister Youssou Ndour, reported “significant damage,” including “at least one burnt out car” near its premises.
Senegalese regulatory authorities on Thursday suspended the signal of two local television channels, Sen TV and Walf TV, for 72 hours from 5 p.m. on Thursday, accusing them of broadcasting “in loop” images of the unrest after Sonko’s arrest.
Sonko was to have been transferred Thursday evening to a Dakar courthouse where his case will be heard by a judge, but his lawyers said the hearing had been postponed to Friday.
“Ousmane Sonko is now the subject of a warrant. He will be taken to the investigating magistrate tomorrow, willingly or by force,” Abdoulaye Tall, one of his attorneys, told AFP.
Hundreds of people followed his motorcade on Wednesday, as he traveled to a court to deny rape charges filed against him last month by an employee at a salon where he received massages.
Supporters sounded horns and sang before clashes erupted, and Sonko was arrested before even reaching the court.
Interior Minister Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome said Sonko had been arrested over a ban on gatherings because of the coronavirus and violating a traffic plan put in place.
“Everyone has to comply. Others have done the same. I wonder why there would be an exception,” he told RFM radio.
A 46-year-old devout Muslim, Sonko is frequently critical of Senegal’s ruling elite and is popular with young people.
He accuses Sall of conspiring to sideline him ahead of the 2024 elections.
Violence also broke out Wednesday in other areas including in Casamance, where Sonko’s father is from and where he has a strong following.
Sonko ran against the president in the 2019 vote, but finished third in a race that delivered the incumbent a second term.
Presidents in the former French colony are limited to two consecutive terms, but Sall launched a constitutional review in 2016, raising suspicions he intends to run again.