Two reporters die in protests in Algiers

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The Independent Online

Two people died as police clashed with hundreds of thousands of protesters trying to reach the presidential compound in Algiers on Thursday during a "march for democracy" sparked by nearly two months of bloody unrest, an Interior Ministry official said.

The high–level official, Mohamed Guendil, said on television that the two were journalists who had been hit by a bus fleeing a burning depot.

Hospital officials said that between 400 and 500 people were injured in the demonstration, called by Berber groups but supported by numerous opposition parties.

The demonstrators were demanding justice and more freedom from the military–backed government after weeks of deadly riots in the Berber region of Kabyle.

The Berbers, who claim to be the original inhabitants of North Africa, have had tense relations with Algiers for decades as they press their demand for official recognition of the Berber language, Tamazight.

Demonstrators, some carrying knives and hatchets, threw stones and iron bars at facades of buildings, destroying them. They also bashed in the glass front of the Sofitel, the most luxurious hotel in Algiers, and destroyed dozens of cars.

Sporadic rioting continued along the main arteries of Algiers hours after the march ended, and streets were strewn with broken lampposts. Columns of smoke from fires and tear gas wafted into the sky.

There was no official estimate of the number of marchers, but informal estimates reached about half a million. Marchers carried signs denouncing the "hogra," a word used to refer to injustice and abuse of power, and denounced authorities as "assassins."

The march comes after at least 52 people were killed during 40 days of rioting in the mountainous Berber region of Kabyle that begins some 100 kms (60 miles) east of Algiers.

The riots were triggered by the April 18 death of a teen–ager in a Kabyle police station. Since then, there have been numerous demonstrations in Kabyle and in Algiers, with at least 200,000 people marching through the capital on May 31. The Berber protest quickly broadened to take in the masses of discontented citizens in this nation rich in natural gas but marked by corruption and soaring unemployment.

This week, rioting spread to the Aures region further east. Newspapers said 24 people were injured Wednesday, some by police gunfire, in Ain Fekroun, in the Aures region, 530 kms (330 miles) east of Algiers.

The violence was the latest outbreak in this North African nation, which has been battling an Islamic insurgency for nine years. More than 100,000 people have been killed since the tion, authorities had closed down the 34th Algiers Fair, the march starting point. The fair draws hundreds of businesses from abroad.

Wednesday's violence in Ain Fekroun followed several days of rioting in the Aures town of Khenchella, where at least one person was killed and some 50 injured. The police chief of Khenchella and his deputy have been fired.

"Anger is Gaining Ground," the privately owned daily Le Matin said in a Wednesday headline. "Algeria: Revolt or Revolution?" asked the daily Liberte.

On Friday, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika referred to a "foreign plot" to explain the growing violence. Bouteflika has ordered an investigation into the deaths in Kabyle but his action has failed to soothe tempers.

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