Senegal to ease virus curfew after angry protests

Empty: The arrivals gate Dakar's Blaise Diagne International Airport. Travel bans and a nightly curfew have had a huge economic impact in Senegal

Senegal said Thursday it would ease an anti-coronavirus curfew and lift restrictions on inter-city travel following two nights of protests marked by violence and more than 200 arrests.

Interior Minister Aly Ngouille Ndiaye said the start of the 9:00 pm to 5:00 am curfew would be pushed back by two hours, to 11:00 pm.

"From today, transport restrictions across the country are being lifted, with the curfew being maintained from 11pm to 5am," he said on state television.

"Gatherings in public or private places, restaurants, gyms, casinos will also benefit from these relaxation measures," he said.

More than 200 people were arrested after demonstrations broke out in several cities, including the capital Dakar, according to interior ministry figures issued on Thursday.

Protesters were dispersed by police and gendarmes using tear gas, and there were pictures on social media showing military vehicles in the street.

The anger has focused on the curfew, but transport workers have also gone on strike over the travel restrictions.

One of the centres of unrest was Touba, Senegal's second largest city located around 200 kilometres (120 miles) east of Dakar, and the seat of a politically powerful Sufi Muslim order, the Mouride Brotherhood.

Several police vehicles there were set ablaze and a coronavirus treatment centre and post office buildings were attacked, sources said.

The Brotherhood's leader, Serigne Mountakha Mbacke, appeared on television late Tuesday to urge protesters to go home and vowed to address the problems.

The curfew was imposed by President Macky Sall on March 23, and has been implemented in tandem with a ban on travel between Senegal's regions.

The authorities have already extended until June 30 a ban on all passenger flights to and from the country.

- Economic pain -

The restrictions have had a major impact on the country's biggest economic sectors -- agriculture and tourism -- and on energy and infrastructure projects.

They have also been deeply felt on a personal level by many Senegalese who depend on day-by-day jobs.

Around 40 percent of the population live below the threshold of poverty, according to a World Bank benchmark.

The West African state has recorded 3,932 cases of coronavirus, 45 of them fatalities, according to a toll compiled by AFP as of Thursday.

The figures are low compared to countries in Europe and the United States, although experts caution that, as elsewhere in Africa, Senegal is vulnerable to the pandemic because of its weak health system.

Sall announced a first relaxation of measures on May 11, allowing places of worship and markets to reopen.

At a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, he signalled that further steps would follow, declaring the time had approached for "a strategy of gradual easing."

High schools had been due to reopen on Tuesday, but this step was delayed at the last minute after 10 teachers in the southern region of Casamance tested positive for COVID-19.

Empty: The arrivals gate Dakar's Blaise Diagne International Airport. Travel bans and a nightly curfew have had a huge economic impact in Senegal