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Locked-down Niger braces for violence as Ramadan approaches

With the holy Muslim month of Ramadan set to start this weekend, authorities in Niger are fearing violence after several cities saw riots over anti-coronavirus lockdowns banning collective prayers.

File picture of the Grand Mosque of Niamey, Niger's capital. Places of worship have been closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus -- a measure that has stoked anger in the deeply religious country

"We just want to pray in our mosques, without violence... we are determined to exercise our religious right," Hassane Dari, a young trader in the rundown district of Lazaret in the capital Niamey, told AFP.

In nearby Banizoumbou, housewife Hadjia Aissa said: "They want to keep us from praying during the holy month of Ramadan? It's not going to happen!"

Such discontent began stirring a month ago in the deeply Muslim semi-desert country as the government began imposing measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic, notably closing down mosques.

More than 300 people have been arrested in recent days in the runup to Ramadan in the impoverished former French colony, with rioters torching cars and buildings and setting up roadblocks.

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The lockdown has been imposed despite a relatively low COVID-19 toll in the country -- officially 20 deaths from 657 cases as of Tuesday.

In addition to border closures, a state of emergency and a curfew, mosques have been closed as well as schools, and Niamey has been shut off from the rest of the country.

Riots broke out first in the central town of Mirrya on March 23 when youths wielding clubs and knives torched buildings and vehicles, according to authorities.

A week later in the western region of Tahoua, protesters took to the streets of Illela, torching the town hall and personal property.

Dozens of protesters were taken into custody in the two incidents, authorities said.

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Unrest has since surged in Niamey, notably late Sunday when around 10 neighbourhoods including Lazaret and Banizoumbou "erupted," the city's governor Issaka Assane Karanta said on state television Tuesday.

He charged that "organised individuals" flouting the curfew "burned tyres and attacked private property."

At least 108 demonstrators were arrested in a first wave of protests from Friday to Sunday, police said, adding that 10 were being held in Koutoukale high-security jail around 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Niamey.

Another 166 people were arrested late Monday, police said Wednesday, describing scenes of protesters burning tyres and using lamp posts to set up roadblocks.

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Images of further protests in parts of the city of 1.5 million late Tuesday were posted on Facebook.

Authorities and influential traditional chiefs have issued calls for restraint.

The faithful need not attend mosque to pray, President Mahamadou Issoufou said on television last week.

"Flee contagious diseases as you would flee a lion. Don't bring infected people and healthy people together -- they must be separate."

On Saturday, the country's top religious body, the Niger Islamic Council, urged people to show "resilience" and avoid flocking to the mosques "simply to protecting oneself and others".

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The council said "all preventive measures will be maintained... as long as the chain of contamination (of new coronavirus) lasts."

Near a mosque in Danzama-Koira district, local resident Allassane Issa told AFP he expected an easing of the curfew and a reopening of mosques during Ramadan "to prevent an upsurge in violence".

"There's a mosque on almost every street corner," he said, implying that police would find it difficult to patrol them all.

Niger has suffered serious religious disturbances in the past. In 2015 after the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, riots claimed 10 lives and most of the capital's Christian churches were destroyed.

Only one to two percent of the population is Christian.

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In addition to fighting the coronavirus, Niger has been beset for several years by spiralling violence from jihadist groups operating in the Sahel region.

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