NIAMEY - At least seven churches were burned Saturday in Niger's capital Niamey during rioting in response to the publication of a Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) cartoon in France's Charlie Hebdo magazine, an AFP correspondent reported.

The sites, which were primarily evangelical churches, were torched on the left bank of Niamey, several of them housed in small villas that bore no distinctive religious signs. Protesters were also headed for the right bank, which also contains numerous churches.  Around 100 helmeted riot police stood in front of the Niamey cathedral at midday, protecting it from a crowd of stone-throwing youths. Earlier, police fired tear gas to disperse some 1,000 youths in front of the city's grand mosque and AFP witnessed protesters in several parts of the city armed with iron bars and clubs.

France's embassy in Niamey warned French citizens to stay indoors after rioters also ransacked several French-linked businesses, including telephone kiosks run by Orange. ‘Be very cautious, avoid going out,’ the embassy said on its website. Saturday's protest came a day after a policeman and three civilians were killed and 45 injured in protests against Charlie Hebdo in Niger's second city of Zinder, which saw three churches ransacked and the French cultural centre burned down.

Thousands of Muslims demonstrated across the world on Friday, venting fury over the new Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) cartoon that Charlie Hebdo published in the wake of Islamist attacks on its offices and elsewhere in Paris last week.

Many Muslims see any depiction of Islam's prophet as offensive, while many Western governments support Charlie Hebdo's position that publishing the cartoons is an exercise in freedom of expression. French President Francois Hollande on Saturday stressed that the country had ‘principles, values, notably freedom of expression’. The satirical weekly has repeatedly published cartoons of Muhammad (PBUH) over the years and its latest issue, released on Wednesday, features a cartoon of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) on its cover holding a ‘Je Suis Charlie’ (I am Charlie) sign under the headline ‘All is forgiven’. It came a week after attacks by three Islamists on its offices, a kosher supermarket and a policewoman left 17 people dead in and around Paris over three days, in raids that deeply shocked the country and sparked an outpouring of international support.

Moreover it has also been learnt that the police fired teargas at hundreds of rock-throwing demonstrators in Niger's capital Niamey on Saturday, in the latest of several protests in France's former African colonies against French newspaper Charlie Hebdo's cartoons.

In the second day of protests in Niger, at least two police cars were burned by demonstrators outside the main mosque in Niamey after authorities banned a march organised by local Muslim leaders. No casualties were reported. On Friday, at least one police officer and three civilians were killed in demonstrations against the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Niger's second city of Zinder, police sources said.

Churches were burned, Christian homes looted and the French cultural centre attacked during the violence in Zinder, residents said. Peaceful marches took place after Friday prayers in the capital cities of other West African countries - Mali, Senegal and Mauritania - and Algeria in North Africa, which are all also former French colonies. In Algiers, several police were injured in clashes with protesters angered by the cartoons.