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Senegal’s president calls for an investigation into deadly clashes, says he’s open to dialogue

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By Associated Press


DAKAR: Senegal’s president has ordered an investigation to determine who was responsible for protests by supporters of a political opponent that turned deadly last week but said he was open to consulting with the parties involved.

President Macky Sall made his first remarks about the unrest while speaking at a council of minister’s meeting on Wednesday. At least 16 people, including members of the security forces, were killed, according to the government. The opposition says at least 19 were killed.

“The president of the republic has strongly condemned these extremely serious attacks against the state, the republic and its institutions,” government spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana said. He said the protests had included violence, looting and cyber-attacks, “the aim of which was undoubtedly to sow terror and bring our country to a standstill.”

Clashes between some protesters and police erupted after opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was convicted of corrupting youth but acquitted on charges of raping a woman who worked at a massage parlour and making death threats against her.

Sall is open to dialogue and consultations with all the “nation’s driving forces, in keeping with the rule of law and our shared desire to live together in peace, stability and solidarity,” Fofana said.

Sonko, who didn’t attend his trial in Dakar, hasn’t been seen or heard from since his conviction and sentencing to two years in prison. Sonko’s house in the capital is heavily guarded by security forces, and his lawyers say they’ve been denied access to him.

The prison sentence could undermine Sonko’s chances of running in Senegal’s presidential election next year. He is considered Sall’s main competition. Sonko has urged Sall to state publicly that he won’t seek a third term in office.

The constitution limits presidents to two five-year terms, but Sall argues that an amendment adopted in 2016 allows him to reset the clock and seek another term.

Analysts said that Sall’s comments were a positive step toward quelling tensions but he would need to go further to restore calm.

“His statement last night seemed to be a part of a strategy that worked well in the past, staying silent at the height of the protests to not inflame tensions and then sending a conciliatory message to the public,” Mucahid Durmaz, senior analyst at global risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft said.. “(But) Sall’s statement hasn’t addressed the elephant in the room. The question of whether he will pursue a third term, which is the root cause of the tension, has been left unanswered.”

Since the clashes erupted, critics have accused Sall’s government of a heavy-handed response.

It temporarily suspended mobile phone internet access and access to some social media sites, such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, which it said was being used to incite violence. Rights groups, civilians and the opposition accused security forces of violently cracking down on protestors, arbitrarily arresting people and deploying armed civilians along with the regular officers.

The Associated Press spoke to two families that said that had relatives die gunshot wounds as a result of the demonstrations. The AP cannot independently verify either cause of death. The government said armed men infiltrated the protests and were not part of the security forces.

“The recent deaths and injuries of protesters set a worrying tone for the 2024 presidential elections and should be thoroughly investigated, with those responsible held accountable,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should end the repression against protesters and critics, and guarantee freedom of assembly.”

The international community has called on Senegal, regarded as a beacon of political stability in a region rife with coups, to find a way to restore the peace.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated U.S support for Senegal’s people and its democratic values, according to a State Department spokesperson.

While a cautious calm returned to the country this week, with mediations being facilitated by religious leaders, who hold strong sway, there are fears that if Sonko is taken to jail, or if Sall announces that he’ll run for a third term, deadly fighting will erupt again.