State thugs reportedly attack Algerian protesters (VIDEO)


Algerian police surround demonstrators during a rally in Algiers. About 200 Algerian protesters braved riot police to rally in a central square in Algiers today as security forces clamped down on the capital.


Farouk Balikci

Hundreds of Algerians have turned out for anti-government protests in the capital Algiers, a week after thousands of demonstrators were confronted by 30,000 riot police at the same venue.

An Algerian activist said security forces and thugs attacked protesters, wounding dozens in the crowd and barred them from gathering in May 1st Square, where opposition leaders had asked supporters to turn out for fresh anti-regime protests in the North African country.

Some were able to enter but were beaten up and systematically dispersed. Others gathered in surrounding streets.

Algerians began protesting immediately after demonstrations in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt led to the ouster of their respective longtime leaders, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. Initially, their complaints were centered on rising prices, but opposition leaders have increasingly called for political reform.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999, has announced that he will lift the state of emergency in what analysts said was an attempt to head off a similar revolt.

Emergency rule was imposed in 1992 to quell a civil war that led to the deaths of more than 150,000 but has been kept in place, ostensibly to curb Islamist groups. However critics say the Islamist insurgency has long since diminished and the law exists only to muzzle government critics.

Algeria so far hasn't seen violent clashes similar to those that toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and claimed protesters' lives this week in places like Bahrain, Libya and Yemen.

Al Jazeera reported Saturday that May 1st Square had been blocked by more than a thousand police officers, equipped with riot gear, who were trying to divide protesters into smaller groups. Helicopters were also reported to be flying overhead.

Anti-government protesters reportedly chanted, "The people demand the fall of the regime" and police cleared streets during the demonstration to make way for traffic.

Khalil Abdul Moumin, the general-secretary of the Algerian League for Human Rights, said protesters were attacked at the May 1st Square in Algiers, which commemorates international labor day.

They "were faced with thousands of police officers" as they prepared to march toward Martyrs Square, which memorializes the people who died in Algeria's war of independence last century.

"They attacked us and used gangs of thugs to start a fight with us," Moumin told CNN, noting that dozens of protesters were injured, including a parliament member and a union leader.

"I was attacked myself by the thugs who tried to stab me. I was rescued by the protesters in the last minute," he said. "All of this happened in front of the police and they did nothing to stop it."

El Watan, an Algerian daily newspaper, reported on Saturday that train services in the country had been shut down completely, and that authorities had also set up road blocks on the highway that links Tizi-Ouzou, Boumerdes and Bejaia to the capital.

The newspaper reported that people from the eastern region of Kabylie, known for their involvement in previous uprisings, were not being allowed to travel to Algiers.

Mourad Medelci, Algeria's foreign minister, said the authorities had not received a formal request to authorize the protest in Algiers, where demonstrations have long been banned, Al Jazeera reported.

"To my knowledge there was no request to march," Medelci said, speaking in Madrid, the Spanish capital. "Perhaps there was a will to do so but we are an administration which functions in a transparent manner and we respond when we are solicited."

The United States and Algeria have grown closer since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, with the North African country aiding in counterterrorism and law enforcement.