Algerian police clamp down on pro-democracy protest

Saturday, February 12, 2011

ALGIERS/PARIS - Algerian police Saturday cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators trying to stage an unauthorised march in the capital Algiers, in a show of force aimed at thwarting an Egypt- or Tunisia-style popular revolt.

An estimated 2,000 demonstrators gathered on the central May 1 square for a march through the city to protest the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

“A free and democratic Algeria,” some of the demonstrators, who were mostly middle-class men, chanted. Others called for Bouteflika to resign.

The protest, which had been planned for more than a week, comes a day after mass demonstrations forced Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down after 30 years.

The nervousness of the authorities was reflected in the huge security presence in Algiers. Thousands of riot police patrolled the city in armoured vehicles or on foot.

The protesters soon found themselves hemmed in by the huge contingent of riot police, who barred all routes out of the square and made dozens of arrests. Police also used batons on the demonstrators, but there were no injuries reported so far.

The Algerian human rights league told DPA that about 200 people, including opposition politicians, had been arrested.

The protest was called by the Coordination for Change and Democracy (CNCD), a newly formed grouping of trade unions, human rights organisations and left-wing parties demanding democratic reforms, including the right to protest.

Many Algerians have been reluctant to endorse the protest, fearing a return to violence. In the 1990s, the state fought a war against Islamist extremists, in which more than 100,000 people were killed.

The biggest opposition party, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), did not participate in the demonstration.

Party leader Karim Tabou told Radio France International that while he supported the quest for greater freedom, the task was complex because of the country’s troubled history.

“Algeria needs more work, more serious (efforts) than simple popular agitations,” he said.

Algeria already experienced several days of rioting in January over rising food prices and unemployment, in which at least three people were killed and hundreds injured.

Several people have also killed themselves by setting themselves on fire.

To appease critics, Bouteflika said last week that a 19-year-old state of emergency would be lifted “in the very near future”. He also announced other reforms, including food price cuts.

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