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Beggars swept out of central Dakar as Senegal attempts to appease US

CAMBERENE, Senegal (AP) — Abdoulaye Ba, 10, looked right, then left, before timidly approaching the taxi and holding out his hand.

A 10-year-old begging is nothing new in this destitute African country, but the fear in his eyes is.

A few days ago police chased him away from the intersection in Dakar, the Senegalese capital a 40-minute drive away, where he used to approach tourists. Now he hangs around a gas station in this downtrodden suburb outside the police's radar, where he says he earns half of what he got before. Like most other child beggars here, he brings the money back to his Islamic boarding school.

"My teacher told me that if I see a policeman I should run," says the boy. "But he still makes me beg. At night he counts the money and I get in trouble if I don't bring back 500 francs (around $1)."

For the first time in recent memory, the streets of Senegal's capital are largely free of beggars following a police crackdown last week, when the government announced it was banning begging in an effort to comply with the wishes of international donors.

Senegal's penal code outlawed begging years ago, but officials say they recently felt pressure to impose the law because the U.S. has threatened to cut off aid if Senegal does not address human trafficking. Although they say numerous other donor countries as well as the World Bank have also pushed Senegal to address child begging, a letter from the U.S. Embassy made it clear they needed to take action now.

"We are trying to do what our partners have asked us to do — like the U.S.," said Abdoulaye Ndiaye, the deputy to the ministry of justice, who said the letter explained the economic sanctions the country could face if it fails to address its trafficking problem, which includes child begging.

For the past two years, Senegal has been cited on the U.S. State Department's trafficking 'watch list,' in part because of the number of children forced to beg by religious teachers known as marabouts. If the country is listed for a third consecutive year, the U.S. could halt bilateral aid to Senegal.

In 2009, Senegal received more than $85 million in economic aid from the U.S., according to the U.S. State Department's website. Senegal is set to start receiving a $540 million aid package through the U.S. Millenium Challenge Corporation. It is unclear what portion of this aid could be cut off as a result of failing to improve the trafficking problem.

U.S. officials say the way to show improvement is not by rounding up beggars but by prosecuting those who force them to beg.

"We consider the beggars to be victims of trafficking," said Robin Diallo, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Senegal. "What we have recommended is the prosecution of the traffickers — and the beggars are not the traffickers."

At least seven marabouts have been arrested, according to press reports, but the ban has mostly focused on those doing the begging.

Trucks began crisscrossing the capital last week. They rounded up the children, who were driven to a police station, scolded and released, said Doudou-Sarr Niang, a spokesman for the prime minister.

Aid groups and human rights organizations estimate that as many as 100,000 children in this nation of 13.7 million are forced to beg every day by marabouts. Families do not object to their sons begging because it is seen as a tool for building character and instilling humility, but rights groups say the system has become one of economic exploitation and physical abuse.

Boys as young as 3 were until last week sent out into Dakar's chaotic traffic and required to bring back a daily quota of change or face a severe beating.

Critics, however, say the government's crackdown is merely a cosmetic gesture which has at best succeeded in moving the child beggars to a different part of the capital and fails to punish the traffickers.

"What is frustrating is that this effort does not appear to be motivated by a desire to protect kids from forced begging ... but rather by an attempt to gloss over the problem and appease donors, particularly the U.S.," said Matthew Wells, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who authored a recent report on the abuses faced by the talibe, or pupils forced to beg by Quranic instructors in Senegal.

In the alleyways of Camberene, where many of the daaras, or religious schools, are located, the marabouts say they will simply find other ways to make the children in their care beg. In a sandy pit on Road 123 that serves as one marabout's 'classroom,' boys no older than 7 sit on a mat and try to recite verses from the Quran as flies land on their shaved heads.

"My children will still go beg. If they can't beg in public places, then I'll send them to make the rounds of people's homes," says their marabout, Yahya Diamanka.

A few miles away in a dilapidated three-story building, another marabout coordinates the daily begging schedule of the more than 60 children in his care. "How dare they say that we cannot send our children to beg because of what another country wants?" said 58-year-old Oustaz Dia. "Nobody tells me what to do in my house."

Caught in the dragnet are the handicapped adults who used to line their wheelchairs along a stretch of the boulevard leading to the presidential palace in downtown Dakar. The government acknowledges that they are not victims of trafficking, but Niang argues that if the anti-begging law is to be applied, it should be applied to all.

When the truck pulled up last Friday, the beggars tried furiously to roll their wheelchairs away, but police chased them down. In all, around 200 beggars have been arrested. Most were jailed and are now awaiting trial.

On Rue de Roume, only one beggar remained on a recent afternoon. He pulled himself on all fours across the pavement, his atrophied legs curled underneath him, and held out his hand. Since losing the use of his legs to polio, Mor Fall has positioned himself on this 50-yard stretch of road flanking several banks. He evaded the police because he is so low to the ground they failed to see him.

"I cry sometimes and ask, 'Why did God make me like this?" says Fall, who stresses that he will starve if he is not allowed to beg. "I have a gun at home. Sometimes I put it to my head and hold it there. I wish I had the courage to pull the trigger."

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Associated Press Writer Sadibou Marone contributed to this report.