Police sealed off a main square and fired tear gas and rubber bullets to prevent the demonstration [Reuters]

Riot police in Senegal have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, after the country's opposition defied a government ban to go ahead with a demonstration calling for President Abdoulaye Wade to stand down.

Wade is running for a third term in office in next week's presidential election.

Police used grenade launchers to throw volleys of tear gas down a main boulevard during Friday's demonstration in Dakar, at one point hitting a mosque full of worshippers.

Small groups of young demonstrators attempted to defy them, with about a dozen holding their arms up in an 'X', the symbol used by the opposition to show the bound hands of Senegal's 12 million people, and braving a police cordon.

"Liberate the people," they screamed, before being chased back by the police.

Burning tires, debris and rocks littered the streets around Independence Square, which police had sealed off to prevent the rally. Riot police on trucks and foot chased protesters to prevent them from converging there, firing rubber bullets, water cannon and volleys of tear gas throughout the afternoon.

Street battles continued into the night in the seaside capital, leaving several people including a western photographer and local journalist injured, AFP reporters witnessed.

Senegal is a week away from its first presidential election in five years. Electoral laws allow candidates to hold rallies in the pre-election period, but the interior minister issued a statement this week saying that the protests would pose a threat to public order and would not be allowed.

He described the various demonstrations that have disrupted daily life in Senegal for the past two weeks as "a crime spree by vagabonds".

Continuing protests

On Wednesday and Thursday, police clashed with protesters who set fire to tires, pulled down lamp pols, smashed signs and set wooden tables alight.

Abdoul Aziz Diop, a spokesman for the M23 coalition of opposition parties, said that their supporters had refused to respect the ban because it is unconstitutional.

A 61-year-old woman who is part of the opposition was led away by police, screaming as reporters crowded around to interview her. Madiguene Cisse had fought since the 1980s to help get Wade elected, and voted for him in 2000 when he first came to office, in an election that marked the end of 40 years of socialist party rule.

 

"It's not easy to uproot a baobab tree that has been there for 40 years," she said outside the central commissariat, after she was released. "At the end of our pain, we expected things to change. Wade - when he was in the opposition - used to tell the youth, if you don't have a job raise your hand. Well, our hands are still in the air."

Wade, 85, has angered the population by refusing to step aside at the end of his second term. If he wins
the election on February 26, he will be exceeding the two-term maximum set in a constitutional revision in 2001, which was carried out under his watch.

Four people have been killed in two weeks of unrest in Senegal, and police have so far not used live ammunition to attempt to suppress demonstrations.

On Friday, however, reporters said they saw a policeman open fire with a pistol after rioters hurled rocks at a police truck. No-one appeared to have been hurt by the live rounds.

Shopkeepers in the Dakar neighbourhood where the protest took place barricaded their stores and the vendors who normally hawk their wares on William Ponty were standing to the side, their goods bundled up.

"We are people that make ends meet by selling things on the street," said 60-year-old Mountaga Diallo, a plastic bag full of plastic bottles hoisted over his shoulder. "Our country isn't rich. There's no gold. There's  no diamonds. ... This entire week, I've earned nothing. ... We can be poor, but if we don't even have peace than we are really in trouble.''

The opposition has called for another rally on Saturday.

Source: Agencies