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 Monday, 6 January, 2003, 12:33 GMT
Thousands march for Algerian Berbers
Demonstrator throws stones at police in Tizi Ouzou last year
Berbers are demanding more autonomy
Thousands of Algerians have marched in Paris to demand the release of six Berber activists arrested in the Kabylie region more than a month ago.

Belaid Abrika, who leads the Berber movement
Belaid Abrika is among the hunger strikers
The six have been accused of sabotaging local elections last October.

A cross-section of Algerian society has been calling for the release of the prisoners, three of whom have been on hunger strike for 34 days.

Last week the three other detainees called off their hunger strike owing to poor health.

The prisoners started their strike on 3 December in protest at what they describe as arbitrary arrests.

'Uncle colonisation'

Between 10,000 and 15,000 demonstrators, some waving Algerian and Berber flags, marched through the centre of Paris on Sunday to demand the release of the six.

"Their sole crime is to be opponents who have been putting up a struggle against the central authorities for a month now," Ferhat Meheni, the chairman of the Movement for Autonomous Kabylie told the BBC French service.

The demonstrators were also critical of Algerian President Bouteflika and his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac, who inaugurated a Year of Algeria in France last week.

"The Year of Algeria in France is just the latest gimmick given by Uncle Colonisation to the king of savage African tribes," Mr Meheni said.

"That year has nothing to do with reality in Algeria. Algeria, which is grieving for its dead, is in no mood to smile."

No mayors or councils

Support has been increasing for the six members of the Co-ordination of the Tribes of Kabylie, jailed in Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia.

University staff, human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, artists, writers and other citizens have called for their release.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika
Bouteflika has come in for criticism by the Algerians in France

The boycott of the October polls, called by the group, was widely followed in the Kabylie region.

Dozens of districts now find themselves without mayors or local councils.

In the districts where it was possible to organise the ballots, the local councils were blocked and their members quarantined by the population.

Fresh protests

Hundreds of people spent New Year's day outside the prisons of Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia, as a sign of their support for the prisoners.

The group's call for a general strike, last Tuesday, received massive support, notably in the region of Tizi Ouzou where public offices, factories, businesses, banks and post offices remained closed.

On Wednesday, a march ended in violence at Sidi Aich, in the region of Bejaia, 260km east of Algiers.

Demonstrator runs away from police tear gas
Police used tear gas against demonstrators during May's elections

Police used tear gas to disperse the protesters who had set fire to the offices of the electricity and gas company.

The protesters demand the release of the prisoners, the removal of gendarmes from Kabylie, and the impartial trial of gendarmes implicated in the repression of the riots of Spring 2001 which left more than 100 dead and thousands injured among the protestors.

The riots broke out after the shooting in April 2001 of a 19-year-old college student at a police station near Tizi Ouzou.


Islamist uprising

Berber struggle

Economic hardship

Background
See also:

15 Oct 02 | Africa
10 Oct 02 | Africa
11 Jan 02 | Middle East
18 Mar 02 | Country profiles
18 Mar 02 | Middle East
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