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Unusual violence ahead of Senegal election

DAKAR, Senegal - Paramilitary police in northern Senegal opened fire Monday on men and women protesting the president's plan to run for a third term, killing a woman in her 60s and a high school student, a witness and a rights group said.

The violence is uncharacteristic for Senegal, a normally peaceful nation on Africa's western coast, and suggests its political conflict is escalating. Protests spread from the capital to the interior last Friday after the constitutional court validated President Abdoulaye Wade's candidacy in next month's election.

The legality of the 85-year-old Wade's quest for a third term is disputed. The constitution was revised in 2001 to impose a two-term limit. Wade, who came to power in 2000, argues that he is exempt because he was elected before the new law was drafted.

Early on Monday, the five-judge panel rejected the appeals lodged by the opposition over the weekend. Later in the day, demonstrators gathered in the center of Podor, some 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of the capital of this nation of 12 million, to protest the court's siding with Wade.

Amadou Diagne Niang, a resident of Podor who is the local correspondent for Le Soleil, the state-owned newspaper, said the paramilitary police, known as the gendarmes, ran out of tear gas. When the protesters refused to disperse, they opened fire with live bullets. The woman and young man were killed in front of him, Niang said by telephone from Podor

Amnesty International confirmed the killings, and its West Africa researcher, Salvatore Sagues, said it "marks a dramatic escalation in the violence that has plagued Senegal in the run up to its elections."

"As further protests are planned for tomorrow, we call on the authorities to refrain from using live bullets against peaceful protesters," Sagues said.

Cmdr. Papa Ibrahima Diop, a spokesman for the National Gendarmerie, also said he had been informed that two people were killed in Podor, but that he could not disclose details because an investigation is ongoing.

In the court's ruling, the judges said Wade's first term under the new constitution should be considered as being the one that started when he was first re-elected in 2007. Therefore, his second term would be the one that he would serve if he is re-elected in Feb. 26 election.

"It was never our intention in any way to violate the constitution of our country," Wade's spokesman Cheikh Serigne Ndiaye told reporters on Monday. "The (constitutional) council agreed with our reasoning."

Besides the protest in Podor on Monday, a demonstration in the capital on Friday turned violent, claiming the life of a police officer, who was stoned to death by rioters. The police reacted by arresting leading opposition figure Alioune Tine, a noted human rights activist, who was taken into custody on Saturday. His continued detention became a rallying point for the opposition, and music icon Youssou Ndour got into a shoving match with police over the weekend when he tried to force his way into the police station where Tine was being held.

Late Monday after more than 48 hours, Tine was finally released, said his collaborator Assane Dioma Ndiaye, the president of the Senegalese League for Human Rights.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that the United States respects the decision of the court. But she added that it was not in Senegal's best interest for the elderly Wade to seek another term.

"Our message to him remains the same: That the statesmanly-like thing to do would be to cede to the next generation. And we think that would be better," she told reporters in Washington.