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Thousands rally to demand Algerian leader quits

12 lutego, 2011

Up to 2,000 demonstrators evaded massed police Saturday to rally in a central Algiers square demanding that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika step down like the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

Ringed by hundreds of anti-riot forces, some carrying automatic weapons in addition to clubs and shields, they waved a large banner reading "Regime, out" and chanted slogans borrowed from the mass protests in Tunis and Cairo.

But police deployed in their thousands prevented a planned march from May 1 Square of some four kilometres (three miles) to Martyrs Square.

The demonstrators included both the head of the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), Said Sadi, and his one-time arch enemy Ali Belhadj, former leader of the now-banned Islamist Salvation Front.

A knot of police surrounded Sadi to prevent him using a loudhailer to address the crowd, while a number of arrests were made, journalists witnessed.

By the afternoon only some 150 mainly young protesters were left in a corner of the square still chanting defiantly.

But Fodil Boumala, one of the founders of the National Coordination for Change and Democracy (CNCD), which called the march, was jubilant.

"We\'ve broken the wall of fear, this is only a beginning," he said, adding, "The Algerians have won back their capital."

There were scuffles with security forces and numerous arrests well before the march had been due to begin at 11:00 am (1000 GMT), witnesses said.

Authorities said 14 people had been held and then released but the head of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH), Mustapha Bouchachi, said there had been 300 arrests in Algiers and elsewhere.

"Some were freed but other are still being held," he said.

Those detained at least briefly included two RCD deputies, Othmane Maazouz and Feta Sadad, as well as Boumala of the CNCD.

Expressing outrage, Sadi also told AFP that 90-year-old veteran human rights campaigner Ali Yahia Abdelnour had been manhandled by police.

He said police had already violently dispersed a gathering on Friday of people celebrating Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak\'s downfall and made 10 arrests.

"It wasn\'t even an organised demonstration. It was spontaneous. It was an explosion of joy," he said.

From early Saturday, authorities took draconian measures against the planned protest with nearly 30,000 police deployed in the capital along the proposed route of the march.

Anti-riot vehicles and water cannon were seen ready for action near the square where it was scheduled to begin.

In the main western city of Oran, between 400 and 500 protestors also rallied Saturday for a demonstration which the opposition said had been banned by the authorities, though the interior ministry denied it.

A dozen arrests were made, an AFP correspondent said. They included the local CNCD leader and his son, two journalists and two mime artists with their faces whitened and black crosses on their lips.

The CNCD, an umbrella group of opposition parties, civil society movements and unofficial unions including the RCD and the LADDH, was set up only three weeks ago, emboldened by the mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt.

The CNCD is demanding the immediate end of Bouteflika\'s regime, citing the same problems of high unemployment, housing problems and soaring costs that inspired uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Mounting grievances triggered riots in early January that left five dead and more than 800 injured.

A protest called by the CNCD in Algiers on January 22 left many injured as police blocked a march on parliament.

Like their north African counterparts, the protesters have used Facebook and text messages to spread their call for change.

Bouteflika has acted to curb price rises and promised political concessions, including pledging to lift a two-decade state of emergency, which the opposition says do not go far enough.