June 3, 2020 / 6:19 PM / a month ago

Coronavirus protest rocks Senegal's holy city Touba

TOUBA, Senegal June 3 (Reuters) - Crowds of youths in Senegal’s holy city of Touba torched an ambulance, threw rocks and looted office buildings late on Tuesday, protesting restrictions imposed over the coronavirus, authorities said.

The country’s second city is a major pilgrimage destination and trading hub, headquarters of a powerful Sufi Muslim brotherhood, whose founder is buried at a shrine there.

Its economy has been hard-hit by emergency measures to contain the epidemic. Regional travel has been banned since late March, and mosques and weekly markets were closed although they have since been allowed to reopen.

Touba’s main boulevards were littered with charred tyres and broken branches on Wednesday in the wake of the overnight protest, which saw scores of demonstrators set fire to an ambulance outside a coronavirus treatment centre.

“This frightened us,” said district administrator Mansour Diallo, standing by the burned-out vehicle, whose tyres still smouldered. “It is certainly the consequences of the state of emergency and the lockdown.”

The protesters had also thrown rocks at the post office and raided the office of the state power provider, making off with refrigerators, computers and printers, Diallo said, adding that nobody was wounded.

The government of Senegal has not faced major opposition to its handling of the epidemic. But the unrest in Touba highlights a dilemma for many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, where measures to protect citizens’ health are also damaging the livelihoods of millions who work in the informal sector, stirring up tensions.

Since registering its first COVID-19 case in early April, Senegal has confirmed more than 3,900 cases and 45 deaths. Touba is the worst-affected city after the capital Dakar.

It is not clear when regional and international borders might reopen after closures that hampered trade and brought tourism to a standstill. Unable to shuttle passengers between Touba and Dakar, taxi driver Same Diop has started begging in the street alongside dozens of other drivers struggling to support their families.

“I prefer to stand with my license and ask people for a little bit of money,” he said, holding out his identity card to passersby. (Writing by Alessandra Prentice Editing by Peter Graff)

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