Algeria beefs up security amid fresh protests

ALGIERS Fri Jan 7, 2011 10:17pm GMT

An Algerian protester holds a stone during clashes with the police in Bab el-Oued district of Algiers January 6, 2011. Hundreds of youths clashed with police in several cities in Algeria, including the capital, over food price rises and chronic unemployment, residents said. REUTERS/Farouk Batiche

An Algerian protester holds a stone during clashes with the police in Bab el-Oued district of Algiers January 6, 2011. Hundreds of youths clashed with police in several cities in Algeria, including the capital, over food price rises and chronic unemployment, residents said.

Credit: Reuters/Farouk Batiche

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ALGIERS (Reuters) - Fresh rioting broke out in Algiers on Friday as police deployed around mosques and authorities suspended soccer championship matches after violent protests over food prices and unemployment.

Riot police armed with tear gas and batons maintained a strong presence around the Algerian capital's main mosques.

In the working class Belcourt district of the capital, rioting resumed after Friday prayers. Young protesters pelted police with stones and blocked access to the area.

The El Khabar newspaper, citing local sources, said in its online edition that one young man had been killed in clashes on Friday in the city of Msila, about 250 km (155 miles) southeast of the capital. If confirmed, it would be the first fatality.

There was no official comment on the report, and no details on how the man was killed.

The official APS news agency said protesters ransacked government buildings, bank branches and post offices in "several eastern cities" overnight, including Constantine, Jijel, Setif and Bouira.

"The unrest resumed in Ras El Oued on Friday morning ... Government buildings were seriously damaged such as (state-run gas utility) Sonelgaz, the local council's, the tax authority's ... as well as several schools," APS said.

Riots have also hit on Friday afternoon the cities of Annaba, 500 km (310 miles) east of Algiers and Laghouat, 700 km south of Algiers, witnesses said. But cities with oil or gas facilities are calm for now.

"In Hassi Messaoud, it is business as usual. All is quiet here," a resident told Reuters by phone. Hassi Messaoud is Algeria's biggest oil field producing an estimated 300,000 barrels per day.

Analysts say the riots are still far from dragging the oil and gas-producing nation back to the sort of political upheaval of the 1990s that caused 10 years of civil strife.

Hundreds of youths clashed with police in several Algerian cities earlier this week, and ransacked stores in the capital. On Wednesday, riot police used tear gas to disperse youths in the Algiers neighbourhood of Bab el-Oued, where the most violent of the protests occurred.

The Algerian Soccer Federation said Friday's league fixtures would be postponed to prevent the organisation of rallies, which the country has banned under emergency law in force since 1992.

The cost of flour and salad oil has doubled in the past few months, reaching record highs, and 1 kg of sugar, which a few months ago cost 70 dinars (27 U.S. cents), is now 150 dinars.

Unemployment stands at about 10 percent, the government says. Independent organisations put it closer to 25 percent. Official data put inflation at 4.2 percent in November.

HANDY LARGESSE

The riots, more intense than the periodic outbreaks of unrest the country of 35 million has grown accustomed to, put authorities under pressure to deliver economic results that reflect strengthening state revenues from energy exports.

But political analyst and university lecturer Mohamed Lagab said: "Without a social or a political force behind the rioters, it is quite difficult for this spontaneous movement to last."

He said that through the riots, Algerians were expressing a desire for "change, freedom, and development."

Benjamin Stora, a leading French historian of the Maghreb, said brief outbursts of youth unrest due to unemployment, housing shortages, poverty and frustration were quite frequent in Algeria but rarely drew much attention because they took place far from the capital.

"You get 48-hour flare-ups, with young people burning tyres, blocking streets and attacking symbols of the authorities like town halls. But it blows over because there's no political follow-up, no opposition structure," Stora said.

With oil prices soaring, Algeria can afford to spend more on more on subsidies to placate the rioters. Its foreign exchange reserves hit $155 billion by the end of 2010.

Shortly after the first riots broke out in Algiers on Wednesday, Trade Minister Mustapha Benbada said prices of sugar and edible oil would be reduced "in the coming days."

The Algerian government will also hold a special cabinet meeting on Saturday on soaring food prices, state radio said.

In the 1990s, Islamists under the banner of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) took leadership of street riots and pushed the government to allow multiple political parties and press freedom. But the army cancelled elections in 1991 which FIS looked set to win, plunging Algeria into a vortex of violence that killed at least 150,000.

(Editing by Jon Hemming)

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