Algeria protesters stage first mass rally of Ramadan

Algiers (AFP) –


Protesters thronged Algeria's capital for the first Friday mass rally of Ramadan, pressing their demands for reforms and the departure of key figures from ousted president Abdelaziz Bouteflika's regime.

Demonstrators braved blazing sunshine to take to the streets en masse following the first weekly prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the faithful refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk.

Many were draped in Algerian flags as they blocked the roads around the capital's main post office square, the epicentre of the protest movement which was launched in February and led to Bouteflika's fall on April 2.

"It's really hot, it's hard to march when you can't drink water," said Samir Asla, 58, standing in the shade of a tree.

But despite the hardships, demonstrators have vowed to keep up the pressure, particularly on army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, a former Bouteflika loyalist and key powerbroker.

"Algeria is a republic, not a barracks," protesters shouted on the 12th consecutive Friday of protests.

"The army is our army and Gaid has betrayed us!"

Demonstrators also called for the resignation of acting head of state Abdelkader Bensalah and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, both stalwarts of Bouteflika's regime.

Witnesses also reported protests in Oran, Constantine and Annaba, the second, third and fourth cities of Algeria, and local media cited rallies in several other regions.

- Tarnished by corruption -

Gaid Salah has dug in against protesters' demands that key leaders quit and be replaced by transitional bodies, vowing to press ahead with presidential elections set for July 4.

Demonstrators have been pressing for transitional bodies to be set up ahead of any election, arguing that their existing institutions -- and leaders -- are too tarnished by corruption to guarantee a legitimate vote.

Last week, the army chief said any change to the constitution was the prerogative of the next president, not the military.

Gaid Salah, a longtime Bouteflika ally whose change of heart marked the beginning of the end for the 82-year-old president, has been accused of trying to impose his vision for a post-Bouteflika transition.

Rights groups condemned the arrest of the head of Algeria's Worker's Party, Louisa Hanoune, a three-time presidential candidate, who was detained Thursday on charges of involvement in "a plot against the army".

The Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights said she had been detained after appearing as a witness at a military court.

"This case of 'conspiracy against the army' seems like a good excuse for silencing all dissenting voices," the League said.

Protesters, however, have welcomed the detention of Bouteflika's powerful brother Said and two former intelligence chiefs on charges including "conspiring" against the state.

But many fear that the arrests are little more than a high-level purge and a power struggle between regime clans, rather than a genuine effort to reform the state.

For the first time in a month state television did not broadcast live footage of Friday's protest.

After the first protests erupted in February, journalists working for state media complained that their bosses had imposed a news blackout on the rallies against Bouteflika's bid to seek a fifth presidential term.

But as they gained in momentum, the protests became headline news on both private and public television channels.

Last week, however, an Algerian state television presenter was fired after slamming the media's role in supporting the Bouteflika regime, his colleagues said.