Algerian ex-conscripts demand promised benefits

ALGIERS – Some 250 former army conscripts who fought in Algeria’s 1990s civil war staged a protest here Monday to press demands for a host of social benefits.

The protesters accused the army chief of staff, Generaf Gaid Salah, of failing to honour promises he had made to the some 60,000 former draftees in the war pitting government forces against Islamic extremists.

“Many of us are handicapped and have been abandoned (by authorities),” said El Haoues Rezoug Zerlach, an ex-draftee from the town of M’sila, 250 kilometres (150 miles) east of the capital Algiers.

He was unable to say how many among the ex-conscripts were amputees, suffering from psychological trauma or unable to find jobs.

The demonstrators, who held a similar protest outside the defence ministry here a month ago, listed demands including food allowances, priority for housing and jobs as well as the right to set up their own association.

The ex-conscripts were drafted between 1995 and 1999 to back up security forces in the war which left 200,000 dead, according to Algerian historians.

“It is unacceptable that those we fought against can have rights which are denied to us,” Rehioui Said, a spokesman for the protesters, said.

“Things must change: we have learned that you have to take to the streets to get your rights,” added Said, who was flanked by colleagues singing the national anthem.

“Give us our rights” and “Where are the promises made to us by influential people?” read two of their protest banners.

Amid tight security, one of the protesters was questioned by police while many others had their identity papers briefly confiscated.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika launched a policy of national reconciliation in 1999 after more than a decade of deadly Islamist violence, and thousands of hardline Islamists have since turned themselves in.

The north African country is facing almost daily strikes and socio-political unrest since riots over the high cost of living left five people dead and more than 800 injured in early January.

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