By Abdoulaye Massalaki
NIAMEY (Reuters) - At least three people were killed on Saturday in protests in Niger against French newspaper Charlie Hebdo's cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, police sources said, bringing the death toll from two days of violence in the West African country to eight.
Police fired teargas at crowds of stone-throwing Muslim youths who set fire to churches and looted shops in the capital Niamey after authorities banned a meeting called by local Islamic leaders. A police station was attacked and at least two police cars burned.
The police sources said two charred bodies were found inside a burned church on the outskirts of Niamey on Saturday, while the body of a woman was found in a bar. She was believed to have been suffocated by teargas and smoke, they said.
At least six churches were burned or looted. Calm returned in the afternoon but a demonstration called for on Sunday by opposition groups could revive the tension.
"They offended our Prophet Mohammad, that's what we didn't like," said Amadou Abdoul Ouahab, who took part in the demonstration. "This is the reason why we asked Muslims to come, so that we can explain this to them, but the state refused. That's why we're angry today."
Demonstrations were also reported in regional towns, including Maradi, 600 km (375 miles) east of Niamey, where two churches were burned. Another church and a residence of the foreign minister were burned in the eastern town of Goure.
Niger's 17 million people are almost all Muslims, though its government remains secular.
With the influence of moderate Sufi brotherhoods, Niger has avoided the armed Islamist uprisings that have shaken neighbouring Nigeria and Mali, but there have been growing protests by hardline Muslim associations over social issues.
Demand has surged for Charlie Hebdo's first issue since two militant gunmen burst in and shot dead 12 people at the start of three days of violence that shocked France.
A cartoon image of the Prophet on its front page on Wednesday outraged many in the Muslim world, triggering demonstrations that turned violent in Algeria, Niger and Pakistan on Friday.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned the violence in its former West African colony, where it has troops as part of a regional counter-terrorism operation. "France expresses its solidarity with the authorities in Niger," he said.
Four Muslim preachers who had convened the meeting in Niamey were arrested, police sources said. The French embassy warned its citizens not to go out on the streets.
The death toll from Friday's clashes in Niger's second largest city of Zinder rose to five after emergency services discovered a burned body inside a Catholic Church.
Residents said Churches were burned, Christian homes looted and the French cultural centre attacked. A police officer and three civilians had already been confirmed killed in the demonstrations, police sources said.
Peaceful marches took place after Friday prayers in the capitals of other West African countries, Mali, Senegal and Mauritania, and in Algeria in North Africa, all former French colonies. In Algiers, several police were injured in clashes with protesters.
(Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Alison Williams)