By Lamine Chikhi
BERIANE, Algeria, May 18 (Reuters) - Hundreds of Algerian security forces were deployed in the town of Beriane on Sunday to try to end three nights of clashes between Arabs and minority Berbers, the worst urban unrest in the OPEC producer in months.
Residents said two people, including a 67-year-old, man have been killed and dozens made homeless since the disturbances involving rival gangs of hooded young men broke out in this north Saharan town of about 35,000 on Thursday evening.
"They burn our houses, steal and kill. The hatred has made them blind," Slimane Baaziz, 51, a member of the Mozabite Berber community, said of his Arab neighbours.
"They hate Arabs. These are criminals. They want to burn and kill. But we won’t let them. We will defend ourselves and respond to their attacks," said Arab resident Noureddine Bkar.
The unrest stems from long-standing local communal rivalries but shares a feature of riots that have erupted in recent months in other towns due to economic grievances — the enthusiastic and often violent participation of unemployed youths.
The intensity of the unrest means that Beriane is likely to be seen by Algerians as a test for the government’s ability to respond to social tensions at a time of growing national discontent over unemployment and lack of housing.
Hundreds of helmeted police and paramilitary gendarme reinforcements backed by water canon were entering the town to prepare for possible further trouble on Sunday evening.
Provincial governor Yahia Fehim told Reuters: "The town is in turmoil, but it is controllable."
Homes and kiosks ransacked by youths throwing stones and petrol bombs on Saturday night lay in smoking ruins in the warren-like residential districts of Baba Saad and Kaf Hamouda.
Ruins of 10 burned shops could be seen in the town centre.
Mohamed Daghour, a 32-year-old Mozabite, said: "My 67-year-old uncle has been killed — his body is still in the morgue. They want to exterminate us. We are not afraid, but we are determined to defend our families and our goods."
Trucks evacuated tens of families from riot-hit districts.
Tensions between Mozabites — the name given to Berbers from the M’zab valley in which Beriane is located — and Arabs stem from economic, linguistic and religious differences and have boiled over into clashes periodically over the past 20 years.
Residents say Arabs tend to resent traditional Mozabite dominance of private commerce, while Mozabites tend to complain they are excluded from state jobs, particularly senior ones.
Mozabites speak their own Berber language, as do other Berber groups in north Africa, and practise the Ibadi form of Islam rather than Algeria’s mainstream Malekite Sunni version.
Berbers are the original inhabitants of north Africa but have had tense ties with Algeria’s central government and often complain of discrimination by the Arab majority.
A representative of the Mozabite community in Beriane said: "We need to teach our sons the culture of respecting differences. We are Algerian citizens and the constitution defends our right to freely practise our religion."
The Beriane unrest is so far minor compared to a mass revolt by a different group of Berbers in Kabylie east of Algiers in 2001 in which 100 people were shot dead by security forces.
But street clashes are sensitive in Algeria, a former French colony with a strong history of revolt and where youth riots in 1988 forced the authorities to abandon one-party rule.
Algerians say Arab-Berber ties are a critical issue for the country’s search for stability following an undeclared civil war in the 1990s that cost more than 150,000 lives. (Writing by William Maclean; editing by Sami Aboudi)