By Diadie Ba
DAKAR (Reuters) - The Senegalese government said on Saturday it had thwarted a coup attempt by arresting suspected opposition-linked "commando" groups it said were planning lethal attacks around the capital.
The announcement on state television came hours before hundreds of critics of President Abdoulaye Wade's government held a rally in the capital to protest over issues ranging from rising living costs to almost daily power cuts.
"The state prosecutor has decided to nip in the bud a plot aimed at a coup d'etat by arresting a number of individuals identified as members of the plot," Justice Minister Cheikh Tidiane Sy said in a statement read on state television.
Tidiane Sy said authorities had learned that "commandos" linked to opposition groups were planning actions around the capital "to create panic and cause fatalities."
He said the suspects had targeted areas including the sprawling Sandaga market in downtown Dakar, a stretch of the corniche road running around the city center and the working class Parcelles-Assainie district further north. He gave no further details.
A few hundred people had gathered in central Dakar by late morning and the atmosphere, a few hundred metres from the presidential palace, was tense but peaceful, a Reuters witness said.
"The government is afraid. They cannot resolve the country's problems so they invent plots that exist only in their heads," said Mamadou Lamine Diallo, head of the opposition Tekki party.
There was a heavy security presence and riot police with water cannons stood by.
The protest marks the 11th anniversary of Wade's presidency and is being held in Dakar's central Independence Square, which organizers are dubbing "Tahrir Place," echoing the Tahrir Square epicenter of Egypt's uprising in Cairo last month.
Opponents feared the government would prevent the protest but Tidiane Sy confirmed it would be allowed to go ahead.
Few expect the protest to gain the momentum being seen across the Middle East.
However it is being closely watched for how big a turnout the country's fragmented opposition can muster less than a year before Wade faces re-election in February 2012.
Opposition leaders accuse the octogenarian leader of bending constitutional rules to allow himself to stand for a third term, and suspect him of nurturing plans to engineer the succession of his son Karim Wade, charges he denies.
The mostly Muslim country is a rarity in the region in that it has a tradition of peaceful transition of power through the ballot box.
(Writing by Mark John and David Lewis; Editing by David Cowell)