Authorities in Senegal interrogated more than 900 people over the weekend as part of increased efforts to prevent attacks by Islamist militants following a series of deadly attacks in the region, the country's police revealed on Tuesday.
The former French colony has a reputation for stability in an otherwise turbulent region. There has never been a major militant attack in the West African country, despite the fact that it shares a border with Mali, where al Qaeda-linked fighters have been active in desert areas for years.
But two high-profile attacks targeting foreigners in the capitals of Mali and Burkina Faso since November have added to signs that an Islamist insurgency is spreading, prompting Senegal to boost security.
"Nearly 900 people were called in for questioning in the context of the security campaign led by national police amid the terrorist threat," said police spokesman Henry Boumy Ciss, referring to a three-day span in the capital Dakar and the nearby city of Thies.
A second security source confirmed the information, adding that 925 people had been questioned. Ciss said those interrogated were not targeted because they were terrorism suspects, but as part of a general vigilance campaign. Most were subsequently released but some were held and charged with a range of crimes not related to militant activity, such as drunkenness and traffic offenses, he added.
Seydi Gassama, executive director for Amnesty International in Senegal, said that police were authorized to conduct such operations provided there were government instructions. However, he said the group will closely watch for any potential rights abuses in the heightened security context, given a history of police excesses.
French officials allegedly issued warnings to governments in Senegal and Ivory Coast saying that militants were plotting to wage attacks in West Africa's cities, Bloombergreported last week. According to Reuters, diplomats have denied rumors of a specific threat to capitals of Dakar and the Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan, both major West African hubs for Westerners working in the aid, diplomacy, and financial sectors.
"We want to avoid an unnecessary psychosis among both Americans and Ivorians," the US embassy in Abidjan said on Sunday, urging citizens to remain prudent.
There are signs of heightened security throughout the urban centers of Ivory Coast and Senegal. Police officers stop and search vehicles near Dakar's beachside restaurants, while armed guards have been conducting patrols through Western-style shopping centers in both capitals.
In early November, security forces in Senegal detained seven people, including four imams, on accusations of having ties to extremism, including the financing of terrorism and money laundering. The arrests came out of a lengthy investigation by the country's authorities.
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