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Nigerian former president arrives in Senegal to mediate election standoff
DAKAR, Senegal (AP) ' Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has arrived in Senegal to mediate the country's political standoff, while police once again fired tear gas to disperse protesters in the capital.
Demonstrators are calling for the departure of 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade, who has defied calls to step down and is instead running for a third term in this weekend's election.
Obasanjo says that his message is as follows: "This country is very beautiful, and nothing should be done to destroy it."
The retired Nigerian leader has helped mediate disputes in other parts of Africa, including last year when he traveled to Senegal's neighbor Ivory Coast to urge its president to step down after losing the presidential election.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
DAKAR, Senegal (AP) ' Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo is traveling to Senegal Tuesday to observe this weekend's contentious presidential election and to attempt to mediate a solution to the country's political impasse.
In the hour before his arrival, police opened fire with tear gas on groups of protesters that had taken to the streets in the heart of the capital to call for the departure of Senegal's 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade.
Wade is seeking a third term in Sunday's election despite his age, growing unrest and his own 2001 revision of the constitution which imposed a two-term maximum.
Six people have been killed in the clashes that have erupted regularly over the past three weeks since the country's highest court ruled that the elderly leader could stand for a third term.
Obasanjo, a former United Nations envoy, has played a role in mediating conflicts elsewhere in Africa, and last year traveled to Ivory Coast to tell ex-Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo to relinquish power after losing that country's election.
He is officially visiting Senegal as the head of the joint African Union and West African regional bloc election observation mission, but is also expected to play a mediating role between the country's opposition and Wade.
A statement released by the regional bloc Tuesday said that Obasanjo will "engage all political stakeholders in Senegal, with a view to promoting dialogue and ensuring peaceful, fair and transparent elections."
It's a turning of the tables for Wade, who has tried to broker conflicts across the world, inserting himself into the Israeli-Palestinian issue and even traveling to Benghazi last year to call for the departure of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Senegalese newspapers have been quick to remind readers that Wade himself counseled Obasanjo not to run for a third term.
Obasanjo is remembered for overseeing the first peaceful transfer of power from a military to a civilian government in Nigeria's history, as well as for stepping down in 2007 after two terms.
As reporters crowded at the airport waiting for Obasanjo's flight, opposition leaders attempted to lead a demonstration in Place de l'Independance, a square located blocks from the presidential palace. Among them was international pop star Youssou Ndour, who said Wade should be taken at his word. The Senegalese singer recalled that Wade ' who spent 25 years as the leader of the country's opposition before finally winning the 2000 poll ' had once said that he would leave if the people stood up and told him to go.
Earlier Tuesday, reporters asked Wade's spokesman if Obasanjo was coming to Senegal to ask Wade to refrain from running for a third term.
"Obasanjo is coming as the head of a mission of African Union election observers. If in addition to this observation mission he wants to take the opportunity to talk to people, we're open," said presidential spokesman Serigne Mbacke Ndiaye.
"In the subject of democracy, I think no one is in a position to give us lessons," he added. "When there is violence, it's regrettable, but less than a year ago, you saw what happened in the suburbs of France where the youths destroyed everything in their path. And yet, France is a great democracy. So there can be a tense situation in a country. There can be unrest, because we're only human."
The street violence that has disrupted daily life in Senegal is highly uncharacteristic for this normally placid nation, long held up as a model of tolerance and stability. Many worry that if Wade is declared the winner of the Feb. 26 poll that unrest will spread.
The country's opposition had vowed to render the country ungovernable if Wade insists on running for a third term. The M23 opposition coalition said in a statement hours before Obasanjo's arrival that they are calling on the African Union to apply pressure so that "Wade is obliged to backtrack in order to preserve peace in Senegal."
Associated Press Writer Thomas Faye in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.