- Associated Press - Sunday, February 19, 2012

DAKAR, Senegal — Protesters demanding the departure of Senegal’s aging president on Sunday seized control of a three-block stretch in the heart of the capital, erecting barricades and lobbing rocks at police just days before a contentious presidential election.

It marked the fifth day of violent protests ahead of the country’s crucial vote.

President Abdoulaye Wade, 85, is insisting on running again, despite the deepening unrest and calls from France and the United States to hand power to the next generation.

The clashes Sunday marked a worrying development because they took on a religious dimension in this normally tolerant Muslim nation.

Hundreds gathered outside a mosque as religious leaders met to discuss a Friday incident in which police used grenade launchers to throw tear gas down the wide boulevard and, at one point, hit the wall of the mosque.

Footage of the incident shown on Senegalese TV indicated that the police had not shot inside the mosque, only outside where a crowd had gathered.

But the cloud of gas enveloped worshippers praying inside and outside the shrine, deeply offending Senegal’s largest Muslim brotherhood, which owns the mosque.

On Sunday morning, as the crowd outside the mosque grew, a truck of riot police took a defensive position at one end of Lamine Gueye Boulevard, and the dozens of youths erupted in jeers.

They then began grabbing cinderblocks from a nearby construction site and smashed them on the pavement in order to make smaller projectiles, which they hurled at police. Security forces responded with waves of tear gas.

They sparred for more than an hour. The protesters then seized control of a three-block stretch of Lamine Gueye, one of two main commercial avenues traversing downtown Dakar.

They grabbed market tables and pieces of plywood that had been nailed across shop windows and used them as shields to protect themselves from the tear gas grenades.

They then lined the makeshift shields across the road’s median as police were pushed back momentarily.

Each time the youths charged the police, they screamed, “Allahu akbar” and “There is no God but Allah.”

Such religious phrases are rarely heard in his this nation, which is more than 90 percent Muslim but has long embraced a secular identity.

The increasingly tense atmosphere on the ground has many concerned that unrest could intensify if Mr. Wade is declared the winner of Sunday’s vote.

In power for 12 years, Mr. Wade oversaw a 2001 revision to the constitution that imposed a two-term maximum, a move that at the time was hailed as proof of Senegal’s democratic maturity. Mr. Wade disappointed many when he argued that the new constitution is not retroactive and should not apply to him.

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