The Senegalese government said it had arrested a number of people and foiled an attempted coup just hours before thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets Saturday, but opposition leaders said the accusations were aimed at undercutting the demonstrations.
Senegal's president of more than a decade said the protests showed the maturity of the West African country's democracy. President Abdoulaye Wade also said he would be willing to meet with the opposition or even hold a televised debate.
"In a democracy, the government governs and the opposition opposes. I don't have to consult them ... (but) with all that happened today, I am ready to receive them and listen to them," Wade, clad in a gold-embroidered traditional boubou, told supporters outside the presidential palace.
Authorities said those arrested are accused of targeting various sites around Dakar including the bustling Sandaga Market downtown. They did not say how many people they were holding over the alleged plot.
"The state prosecutor decided to nip the coup plot in the bud by arresting those individuals identified as members of the plot," Justice Minister Cheikh Tidiane Sy said.
Luc Sarr, special adviser of the Alliance for the Republic, a member of the lead opposition coalition, said the arrests were unacceptable.
"The government wanted to create pressure and a threat so that Senegalese wouldn't come out and protest today," Sarr said.
Popular frustration has been mounting in the moderate West African nation because of daily power cuts and rising costs. There is also growing discontent over the octogenarian president's attempt to run for a third term next year, as well as the increasing influence of his son, Karim.
A sit-in at Dakar's Place de l'Independance drew at least 3,000 protesters Saturday, police said.
"We want things to go boom like in those other countries up there. We want the world to know that things aren't working in Senegal. The power cuts are getting worse and worse. Everything is expensive," said 27-year-old college student Hilais Gomis.
"We want Wade to know that the people want change and that we aren't going to wait indefinitely. We are putting Wade on notice. If we need to use force, we will," added Abybibou Kane, 40, a lawyer who came from about 30 miles (50 kilometers) outside Dakar for the sit-in.
Though Saturday's demonstrations did not reach anywhere near the magnitude of those sweeping North Africa, they could prove a telling test of support for the country's fractured opposition ahead of 2012 presidential elections.
There was no shortage of drums or whistles as opposition supporters, clad in red, prepared to march through the streets of Dakar late Saturday afternoon, chanting: "He should go, he should go." The leading opposition coalition, Benno Siggil Senegal, says the price of food staples like cooking oil, powdered milk and sugar have doubled in price since Wade came to power in 2000.
Associated Press writer Sadibou Marone contributed to this report.