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By Bate Felix and Ngouda Dione

DAKAR (Reuters) – Around 5,000 supporters of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko gathered in Dakar, the capital, on Tuesday for a three-day protest to show support for the aspiring presidential candidate, who faces a libel case which is set to resume this week.

The demonstrations are the latest expression of growing tensions in Senegal in the run-up to a 2024 election that could see President Macky Sall vie for a controversial third term, which the opposition says is unconstitutional.

Sall, 61, has neither confirmed nor denied that he plans to run, amid widespread speculation. The poll would pit him against Sonko, who came third in the last election and has since gained clout, particularly among disillusioned urban youth.

Hundreds of Sonko supporters milled around an empty field in Dakar’s Yoff neighbourhood on Tuesday waiting for the demonstration to kick off. Some waved Senegalese flags and photos of Sonko.

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There was a heavy security presence, including dozens of anti-riot vehicles.

Police are quick to crack down on protests in Senegal. The last pro-Sonko protests, which broke out after he left court last month, were dispersed with tear gas.

“We are sick of this repression, no one can protest in Senegal. Macky (Sall) cannot be a candidate,” said Codou, a protester who travelled from the nearby city of Thies.

Sall’s opponents accuse him of seeking to weaken the competition with false accusations and political trials ahead of the election. The government denies this.

Sonko, 48, is due in court on Thursday to resume hearings for a trial on libel charges for allegedly accusing the minister of tourism of embezzlement.

He is also facing trial on charges of rape and making death threats to a beauty salon employee in 2021. Sonko denies wrongdoing.

Senegal has long been seen as a beacon of democracy in West Africa. But critics have become frustrated with Sall’s crackdown on dissent and his perceived failure to improve economic livelihoods for the majority of people.

Deadly clashes broke out across the country in 2021 when Sonko was arrested over sexual assault allegations.

(Reporting by Bate Felix and Ngouda Dione; Writing by Sofia Christensen; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

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