Algeria clashes as police break up banned protest

ALGIERS — Algerian police clashed with pro-democracy protesters in the capital Saturday as they blocked a march on parliament amid mounting public grievances that have fuelled fears of Tunisia-style unrest.

Five protesters were hurt as riot police used batons to break up the demonstration according to the opposition party which organised the rally in defiance of a government ban.

“There are several injured… and numerous arrests,” Said Sadi, the head of the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), said.

Seven police officers were also hurt in the clashes, officials said. Two of are in serious condition, a police source told the official APS news agency.

Five people were arrested, APS said, also citing a police source.

Among them was the head of the party’s parliamentary group, Othmane Amazouz, the RCD leader said.

Another of the party’s MPs, Arezki Aiter, was detained but released after an hour, the party said.

Around 300 people had gathered for the rally, intending to march from the city’s Place de la Concorde to the parliament building, but they were quickly blockaded by police armed with batons and tear gas, which prevented the group from moving for six hours before it dispersed peacefully.

Sadi said his party’s headquarters in the city’s main avenue had been put under siege by police, describing himself as “a prisoner”.

“We cannot wage a peaceful campaign when we are under siege,” he said, using a megaphone to address the crowd from a first-floor window.

The protesters in the street below waved Tunisian as well as Algerian flags and shouted “A free Algeria, a democratic Algeria” in Arabic, and “Murder State”.

An AFP journalist saw one of the party’s regional leaders, Reda Boudraa, bleeding from the head after being hit by a police baton. Boudraa was taken away in an ambulance with another injured protester.

Said vowed the RCD would mount further protests, despite the government ban, saying his supporters were preparing “for the next demonstrations,” planned for February 9, anniversary of the state of emergency declared in 1992.

A government statement, carried by APS Friday, said: “Citizens are asked to show wisdom and vigilance and not respond to possible provocation aimed at disturbing their tranquillity, peace of mind and serenity.”

“Marches are not allowed in Algiers” under the state of emergency, the statement warned, adding that “all assemblies on public roads are considered a breach of public order”.

The Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH) said Saturday the blanket government ban on peaceful protest could cause a social explosion in the North African country.

“The fact of banning peaceful marches undertaken by the parties and civil society is leading us towards an explosion,” the group’s president Mostefa Bouchachi told AFP.

The LADDH, the RCD, four trade unions and another party, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), announced Friday the formation of a national movement for democracy.

But the FFS said Saturday it was backing out of preparations for a further march.

Mounting public grievances over unemployment and rising costs sparked protests in Algeria earlier this month which left five people dead and more than 800 injured.

The government responded swiftly by reducing the prices of oil, sugar and other basic necessities which had risen sharply, while buying up a million tonnes of wheat amid assurances that subsidies on essential goods like flour would continue.

Unrest still simmers, however, and within the past two weeks eight people set themselves on fire in Algeria, although some cases were deemed to be linked to mental health issues.

Students at the Mouloud-Mammeri University at Tizi-Ouzou in the restive Kabylie region east of Algiers had said that they would back the protest.

In a statement the student leadership praised the Tunisian uprising which ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power and said it “inspired and motivated all the patriots of North Africa.”

Algerian commentators have said that more Tunisia-style protests could break out in Algeria, a country with similar social problems.

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