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Senegalese police fire tear gas at opposition demo

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DAKAR, Senegal — Senegalese riot police fired tear gas Friday at protesters on a main commercial boulevard in the capital, after the country's opposition went ahead with a protest in defiance of a government ban.

Demonstrators are calling for the departure of 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade, who is running for a third term in next week's election.

The increasingly tense atmosphere on the ground has many concerned that there may be unrest if Wade is declared the winner of the vote. He has told reporters he expects to win with a clear majority.

On Avenue William Ponty, police used grenade launchers to throw volleys of tear gas down the wide boulevard, at one point hitting a mosque full of worshippers. Small groups of youths tried to defy them, with a dozen or so braving the police cordon.

They held their arms up in an X, a symbol used by the opposition to denote the bound hands of the people in this normally placid nation of 12 million. "Liberate the people," they screamed, before being chased back by the police.

Senegal is just a week away from a much-anticipated presidential election, the first in five years. Electoral law allows candidates to hold rallies in the pre-election period, but the interior minister issued a statement this week saying that he had refused to authorize the protests because of the threat to public order. He described the various demonstrations that have disrupted daily life in Senegal for the past two weeks as "a crime spree by vagabonds."

On Wednesday and Thursday, police sparred with the packs of protesters who set fire to tires, pulled down lamp poles, smashed signs and set alight the wooden tables used by market women to sell their wares. 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."

The president, who is a few months shy of his 86th birthday, has angered the population by refusing to step aside at the end of his second term. If he wins the Feb. 26 election, he will be in office past his 92nd birthday in a nation where the average life span is 59. He is also running for a third term, even though he oversaw a revision of the constitution in 2001 that imposed a two-term maximum.

Compared to demonstrations elsewhere in Africa, the ones in Senegal have been restrained. Four people have been killed in two weeks of unrest, compared to the death toll in election violence last year in Ivory Coast, in which dozens were killed in the same period of time. The violence here is jarring, though, because of Senegal's history, which has long been a model of stability in the region.

Unlike in Ivory Coast, in Congo, in Guinea and in Nigeria — all countries where recent election violence led to a brutal crackdown resulting in a high death toll — police in Senegal generally use only tear gas and rubber bullets to control the crowds. Even after a policeman was stoned to death with cinderblocks at a recent protest, security forces did not retaliate with anything more than truncheons, tear gas and water cannons.

But in a worrying sign on Friday, reporters saw a policeman open fire with a pistol after rioters hurled rocks at a police truck, causing one of the officers to fall off the side on Lamine Gueye Avenue. No one was hurt by the live rounds. People later retrieved the bullets, holding them up angrily in front of TV cameras.

Shopkeepers 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."

Rebecca Blackwell, Sadibou Marone and Thomas Faye contributed to this report.