Authorities in Senegal said Friday they had arrested members of a rebel group campaigning for the independence of the Casamance region, and bluntly warned “those who seek to destabilise” the country.
“There were indeed rebels who were arrested during the latest demonstrations,” government spokesman Oumar Gueye said, responding to questions about reports in the press.
“Those who seek to destabilise our country are going to get cold feet,” he said.
Gueye gave no details about the arrests, but social media said those detained were members of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC).
They had come to the capital Dakar to attend anti-government protests staged on Wednesday by an opposition coalition called Yewwi Askan Wi, according to those reports.
Yewwi Askan Wi’s leading figure is Ousmane Sonko, mayor of Casamance’s main town Ziguinchor.
Legislative elections take place in Senegal on July 31, and tensions are high after the Constitutional Court banned Sonko and several other opposition leaders from contesting the vote.
Sonko and others threatened during Wednesday’s protest to prevent the elections from taking place if Yewwi Askan Wi was barred.
Sonko’s party did not reply to an AFP request to comment on the government’s announcement.
Senegal’s southern-most region, almost separated from the rest of the country by the tiny state of The Gambia, Casamance has a distinct culture and language, derived from its past as a former Portugese colony.
The MFDC has led a low-intensity campaign since 1982 that has claimed several thousand lives.
However, the conflict had mostly lain dormant until Senegal launched a major offensive last year designed to drive out the rebels.
In a clash on January 24, four Senegalese soldiers were killed and seven were captured alive and taken across the border to The Gambia. The rebels released the hostages the following month.
In March, the army launched a new operation in which it claimed to have destroyed several rebel bases for the loss of one soldier and eight wounded.