February 19, 2011 / 10:51 AM / 7 years ago

Protests hit Djibouti as opposition leaders held

DJIBOUTI (Reuters) - Djibouti detained three leading opposition politicians Saturday, its chief prosecutor said, in a move to quash opposition protests triggered by a wave of political unrest sweeping through the Middle East.

Earlier, anti-government demonstrators clashed for a second day with riot police who used teargas to disperse the crowds demanding the tiny Horn of Africa state's president step down, buoyed by events in Egypt and Tunisia.

State Prosecutor Djama Souleiman said Aden Robleh, Mohamed Daoud and Ismail Guedi had been placed under police custody. Military police patrolled the city's suburbs in heavy numbers.

"These men are not friends of democracy. It is they who are killing democracy," Souleiman told Reuters.

Witnesses said Saturday's demonstrations in Djibouti's Balala suburb failed to match the intensity of Friday's when at least two people were killed after security forces moved in at dusk to end an authorized demonstration in the city center.

Interior Minister Yacin Elmi Bouh said one policeman was killed in the fighting and one demonstrator died after being hit by a speeding police car.

The opposition put the number of demonstrators Friday in their thousands, in a rare outpouring of anger as opposition to President Ismail Omar Guelleh, in power since 1999, grows.

Guelleh, an ally of the United States which has established its only military base in Africa in Djibouti, oversaw a change to the constitution last year that allows him to seek a third term in elections this April.

Djibouti is ranked by the United Nations as one of the world's poorest nations, and unemployment runs at about 60 percent.

The former French colony, whose port is used by foreign navies patrolling busy shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden to fight piracy, counts Somalia and Eritrea among others as neighbors.

One self-exiled presidential challenger, Abdourahman Boreh, who plans to boycott April's election if Guelleh stands, said the United States was backing Djibouti's leader for strategic reasons. But that strategy had backfired, he said.

"He (Guelleh) is ruling by the barrel of the gun. A third term would not be legitimate and the population does not want him," he told Reuters by telephone from London.

"The United States must listen to the people."

Sixty three-year old Guelleh's People's Rally for Progress party has ruled since independence from France in 1977.

"The people don't want this dictatorial regime," said opposition supporter Hawa Abille. "Our freedom is in our hands."

Additional reporting by Richard Lough and Sahra Abdi in Nairobi; Writing by Richard Lough; editing by Maria Golovnina

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