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Algerian police break up crowd at pro-reform rally

Algerian police thwarted a rally by thousands of pro-democracy supporters Saturday, breaking up the crowd into isolated groups to keep them from marching.

Police brandishing clubs, but no firearms, weaved their way through the crowd in central Algiers, banging their shields, tackling some protesters and keeping traffic flowing through the planned march route.

A demonstrating lawmaker was hospitalized after suffering a head wound when he fell after police kicked and hit him, colleagues said.

The gathering, organized by the Coordination for Democratic Change in Algeria, comes a week after a similar protest, which organizers said brought an estimated 10,000 people and up to 26,000 riot police onto the streets of Algiers. Officials put turnout at the previous rally at 1,500. Algeria has also been hit by numerous strikes over the past month.

Saturday's march comes as the pro-democracy fervor sweeping the Arab world is gaining ground, moving from neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, where longtime autocratic leaders were forced from power, to protests in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya.

Authorities have promised to lift a 19-year-old state of emergency — that outlaws public gatherings in the capital, Algiers — by the end of February.

Police at Saturday's demonstrations appeared to outnumber protesters in each of the groups scattered in sidestreets around May 1 square, a major roundabout. They stood in solid lines to block protesters from main avenues. Trucks with water cannons were parked nearby.

Still, by breaking up the crowd, the police managed to turn the planned march into a chaotic rally of small groups.

Opposition lawmaker Tahar Besbas, of the Rally for Culture and Democracy, RCD, party, was hospitalized with an apparent head injury after he was clubbed by police. Besbas' supporters said police refused to take him to a hospital so they called an ambulance, delaying his evacuation.

It was not immediately clear how serious Besbas' injury was.

"We want a change of the regime, not a change within the regime," said the doyen of Algeria's human rights advocates, Ali Yahia Abdenour. The former president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights was undeterred by police despite his frail health. "We want democracy, the sovereignty of the people."

Another demonstrator, 23-year-old Khalifa Lahouazi, a university student from Tizi Ouzou, east of the capital, echoed the call for sweeping changes rather than a cosmetic makeover.

"We're living an insupportable life with this system," said Lahouazi, a university student from Tizi Ouzou, in the Kabylie region 60 miles (100 kilometers) east of Algiers. "It's the departure of the system, not just Bouteflika, that we want," he said, referring to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The army and its political arm, the FLN, ran Algeria for nearly three decades after independence from France, until 1989. It remains a shadowy power under Bouteflika. Critics claim the system has bred massive corruption and complaining that the nation, rich from oil and especially gas production, has failed to share the wealth.

University students and nurses are among those who have held intermittent strikes in recent weeks, joined by the unemployed. Even the richest region, around the gas fields of Hassi Messaoud, was not spared as around 500 jobless youths protested Wednesday, the daily El Watan reported.

A group of communal guards — citizens armed by the state to fight the two-decades-long Islamist insurgency — joined the protest Wednesday in front of the governor's office in Medea, around 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Algiers to demand a variety of social benefits.

Rising food prices led to five days of riots in Algeria last month that left three people dead.

Bouteflika has promised to lift the state of emergency, which has been in place since early 1992 to combat a budding insurgency by Islamist extremists. The insurgency, which continues sporadically, has killed an estimated 200,000 people.

Bouteflika has warned, however, that a long-standing ban on protests in Algiers would remain in place, even once the state of emergency is lifted.

Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, on a visit to Madrid, said in a French radio interview earlier this week that the protesters were only a minority.

"Algeria is not Tunisia. Algeria is not Egypt," he said in an interview with France's Europe 1 radio.

Algeria does have many of the ingredients for a popular revolt. It is riddled with corruption and has never successfully grappled with its soaring jobless rate among youth — estimated by some to be up to 42 percent — despite its oil and gas wealth.

"The people are for change, but peacefully," said sociologist Nasser Djebbi. "We have paid a high price."