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Senegal cuts internet again amid widening crackdown on dissent

FILE PHOTO: Senegal President Macky Sall

By Ngouda Dione

DAKAR (Reuters) -Senegal cut mobile internet access on Tuesday ahead of a banned march against the postponement of a presidential election, and rights groups accused the authorities of using overly repressive tactics to stifle widespread opposition to the delay.

The abrupt postponement of the Feb. 25 vote to December has plunged Senegal into crisis and intensified a backlash against what many see as an attempt to extend President Macky Sall's mandate and a threat to one of the remaining democracies in coup-hit West Africa.

After deadly clashes between protesters and police late last week, the government refused to permit a silent march planned by activist groups for Tuesday and ordered mobile operators to suspend internet access.

In a statement, the communications ministry said the suspension was necessary because hateful and subversive online messages had provoked the previous unrest.

Internet monitor Netblocks said: "The incident underscores the growing use of mass censorship in the country."

The U.N. human rights office and Amnesty International accused the authorities of disregarding fundamental rights to freedom of assembly and expression and using excessive force against protesters.

Three people were killed and around 270 reportedly detained during the protests that swept the capital Dakar and several other Senegalese cities on Friday and Saturday.

"Amid rising tensions and reports of planned further protests, it is crucial that the authorities unequivocally order the security forces to respect and ensure human rights," U.N. human rights spokesperson Elizabeth Throssell said at a briefing on Tuesday.

"Today's renewed suspension of mobile internet access and the ban on the silent march are violations of the right to freedom of expression and the right to information," Amnesty's West Africa office said on X.

Organisers of Tuesday's march said it would now be held at 1100 GMT on Saturday and called on people nationwide to take part.

Sall has said the election delay was necessary because electoral disputes threatened the credibility of the vote, but some opposition lawmakers and civil society groups have denounced it as an "institutional coup".

The standoff has raised fears of protracted unrest in a country usually seen as one of West Africa's more stable democracies. The region has witnessed a string of military coups and constitutional manoeuvres to extend presidencies in recent years.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a call with Sall on Tuesday reiterated U.S. concern about the situation and made clear that the United States wants to see elections continue as scheduled, the State Department said.

"We are extremely concerned about the situation in Senegal," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters at a regular news briefing.

"We want to see a return to elections. We'd like to see them February 25th and if they don't take place on February 25th, we want to see them take place as soon as realistically possible after that."

The French foreign ministry said on Tuesday Senegal must hold a new presidential election "as soon as possible" and use proportionate force when dealing with protests.

A diplomatic mission from West Africa's main political and economic bloc ECOWAS has been in Senegal since Monday to discuss the situation.

In a statement, it recommended sending a new mission as early as next week to help organise a national political dialogue "as a matter of emergency."

"The decision (to postpone the election) is a source of tensions which could lead to a deadlock and jeopardize the tradition of peace and stability needed for the organization of elections under conditions of transparency and justice," it said.

(Additional reporting by Bate Felix, Emma Farge, Portia Crowe, Felix Onuah abnd Humeyra Pamuk and Daphne Psaledakis; writing by Anait Miridzhanian and Alessandra Prentice; editing by Bernadette Baum, Mark Heinrich and Jonathan Oatis)