Niger police tear gas anti-referendum protesters

Wed Jul 15, 2009 10:42am EDT

NIAMEY, July 15 (Reuters) - Police in Niger fired tear gas on Wednesday to break up a crowd of women protesting against President Mamadou Tandja's plans to hold a referendum on extending his rule, demonstrators said.

The protest marks an escalation of tensions in the uranium-exporting West African state, where Tandja has dissolved parliament and the top court despite criticism of his bid to secure more time in power after his mandate expires.

"Our protest was broken up. The security forces used tear gas to chase us from the Constitutional Court but we are determined to keep up the struggle," said Alhoussaini Ousmane Hadiza, a spokeswoman for the protesters.

Witnesses said nobody was hurt during the demonstration by about 100 women, which is the second to have turned violent since a coalition of opposition parties stepped up efforts to prevent the Aug. 4 referendum from taking place.

Lawyers in the desert nation went on a 24-hour strike on Monday to protest against plans to hold a referendum that opponents call an attempted coup d'etat. Bazoum Mahamed, a leading opposition figure, was also briefly detained on Tuesday.

The United States, Canada and West Africa's regional body, ECOWAS, have led the criticism of Tandja's moves. The European Union said it was delaying a payment of budgetary support due to concerns over the referendum.

Despite coming to the end of his second five-year term, Tandja says he needs more time in power to carry out political reforms and complete large projects, which include a dam, oil refinery and a uranium mine financed by French nuclear energy giant Areva CEPFi.PA. (Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Angus MacSwan)