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Algeria police stifle Egypt-inspired protest

About 50 people shouted anti-government slogans in a square in Algeria's capital today but were encircled by hundreds of police determined to stamp out any attempt to stage an Egypt-style revolt.

Government opponents called for a mass protest march to demand democratic change and jobs, but most local residents stayed away and thousands of police in riot gear were moved to the capital to enforce a ban on the march.

"I am sorry to say the government has deployed a huge force to prevent a peaceful march. This is not good for Algeria's image," said Mustafa Bouchachi, a leader of the League for Human Rights which is helping organise the protest.

The protest was not backed by the main trade unions, the biggest opposition parties or the radical Islamist groups that were banned in the early 1990s but still have grassroots influence.

The small knot of protesters on May 1 Square, near the centre of the city, shouted "Bouteflika Out!" - a reference to the Algerian president - and some waved copies of a newspaper front page with the headline "Mubarak has fallen!"

The resignation yesterday of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and last month's overthrow of Tunisia's leader, have electrified the Arab world and led many to ask which country could be next in a region where an explosive mix of authoritarian rule and popular anger is the norm.

Widespread unrest in Algeria could have implications for the world economy because it is a major oil and gas exporter. But many analysts say a revolt is unlikely because the government can use its energy wealth to resolve most grievances.

A handful of protesters arrived at the May 1 Square two hours before the march was due to start, but police arrested some and surrounded the rest. One organiser, Fodil Boumala, sent Reuters a text message saying he was being held in a local police station.

A small counter-protest started up nearby, with people chanting "We want peace not chaos!" and "Algeria is not Egypt!"

A police helicopter hovered over the neighbourhood and about 200 officers in helmets and armed with batons were at the square. Dozens of police vehicles were parked nearby.

About 20 firefighters were on stand-by to douse anyone who tried to set themselves on fire. Tunisia's revolt began after Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself on Dec. 17 in protest at the government, and several Algerians have since copied him.

Thousands more police were on stand-by elsewhere in Algiers, a city of densely packed whitewashed buildings on a steep hillside sloping down to the Mediterranean Sea.

Protest organisers - who say they are inspired partly by events in Egypt and Tunisia - said police were turning people away before they could reach the march, or parallel protests planned for other cities.

Near Kennedy Square, about 3 km (1.8 miles) from the centre, police outnumbered local residents. They milled around in riot gear, drinking coffee, smoking and reading newspapers.

Other Arab countries have also felt the ripples from the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. Jordan's King Abdullah replaced his prime minister after protests and in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh promised opponents he would not seek a new term.

"Algerians must be allowed to express themselves freely and hold peaceful protests in Algiers and elsewhere," the rights group Amnesty International said in a statement.

The government says it refused permission for the rally for public order reasons, not because it is trying to stifle dissent. It says it is working hard to create jobs and build new homes, and has promised more democratic freedoms.