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Violence 'threatening' Algeria presidential election

Algeria unrest forces camp of ailing incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika's to cancel weekend rally, bolster security.
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By Amer Ouali

ALGIERS - Violence is threatening Algeria's presidential election campaign, independent media outlets warned Monday, after unrest forced the camp of ailing incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika's to cancel a weekend rally and bolster security.

"Incidents multiply at election meetings, Bouteflika is dividing Algerians," ran the headline of El Watan, fretting that "the sudden recourse to violence raises fears of the worst" while El Khabar, another Algerian daily, declared that "violence is threatening the campaign".

The warnings come amid increasingly vocal criticism of the 77-year-old leader's bid for a fourth term, with tensions boiling over on Saturday at a planned rally in Bejaia in the restive Kabylie region.

A crowd of 250 demonstrators gathered outside the venue chanting "Bouteflika out", before some stormed the building, attacking a television crew covering the event and torching portraits of the president, who is too frail to take the campaign trail himself.

Abdelmalek Sellal, the former prime minister who stepped down to head Bouteflika's election campaign, called off the meeting citing security concerns.

Before he arrived to address another rally in the Kabylie capital Tizi-Ouzou the following day, riot police had deployed heavily in the city, while some 20 student protesters demanding the veteran leader's departure were arrested.

Bouteflika is widely expected to clinch another term in the April 17 poll, despite his health problems raising serious questions about his ability to rule and preventing him from appearing at campaign rallies, with senior political figures doing the leg work for him.

His electoral "agents", as some Algerian newspapers refer to them, had planned to hold 138 separate meetings across the country and also in the main cities in France that host large Algerian expatriate communities.

Poor turnouts

But poor turnouts and security incidents have already forced a number of cancellations.

"A meeting amid heightened tension in Tizi-Ouzou, Sellal not wanted in Kabylie," El Watan charged in an article about Sunday's rally.

Liberte, another French-language newspaper, spoke of an "opposition front" to the Bouteflika camp taking root in "many cities".

It said the health minister, Abdelmalek Boudiaf, had to seek refuge in the police headquarters in Batna, the southern hometown of Bouteflika's main rival, Ali Benflis, who was cheered by thousands of supporters on Saturday.

Sellal is now expected to avoid a rally in Batna, located around 300 kilometres (200 miles) southeast of Algiers, that he was due to attend the day before campaigning ends next Sunday.

Bouteflika's campaign headquarters blamed the violence in Bejaia on "fascists" from the Barakat movement (Arabic for 'That's Enough') formed to oppose his candidacy, supported by their "thugs" from the Kabylie Movement for Self-determination.

The opposition group, which has organised a number of protests since Bouteflika's intention to run was announced in February, without so far attracting large crowds, on Monday accused the authorities of "peddling rot".

"We condemn all violence wherever it comes from, and we believe sole responsibility lies with powers that be," Barakat said, while emphasising the movement's peaceful and democratic character.

Benflis, who was also implicated in Saturday's unrest by pro-Bouteflika television channel En-Nahar, whose crew was attacked by the protesters in Bejaia, also deplored the violence.

"I regret that this campaign is taking place in a climate of tensions," the former prime minister said, adding: "I have to be honest and say nothing has been done to ensure it is taking place in a calm and serene" atmosphere.