Algeria warns opposition against banned protest

The Algerian government warned Wednesday it will be the opposition's fault if a pro-democracy protest later this month turns violent.

Opposition leaders, human rights groups, unions, students and jobless workers are planning a march Feb. 12 in Algiers, the capital. They want the government to lift the state of emergency that has been in effect since 1992, end its ban on new political parties and generally be more transparent.

But Deputy Prime Minister Nouredine Yazid Zerhouni reminded organizers Wednesday that the march is "officially banned."

"Those who are calling for this march must take responsibility for damage or for things getting out of hand," Zerhouni told reporters, adding that the government had no plans to lift its state of emergency.

Like many of its North African neighbors, Algeria, a nation of 35 million people, is on edge. Riots broke out last month after a spike in food prices, leaving two people dead, and hospital and bank employees are now on strike.

The government has closely watched the wave of resistance rippling across the Arab world — especially the popular rebellion in neighboring Tunisia that overthrew the country's autocratic leader last month and the chaos now in Egypt over President Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule.

On Jan. 22, Algerian riot police clashed with rock-throwing protesters who tried to defy the ban on public gatherings and march in Algiers. The protesters shouted "Boutef out!" — a reference to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999.

Bouteflika is widely credited with quelling a bloody insurgency that pitted Islamist militants against secular security forces and killed up to 200,000 people during the 1990s.

Yet discontent simmers in Algeria: Housing shortages and poverty are endemic, even though the country is a major gas exporter. Activists say officials often siphon off energy profits for personal use instead of investing them in the economy and jobs.

The state of emergency was imposed in reaction to the fierce Islamic insurgency. But opposition groups, noting that violence is now sporadic, say officials used the law as an excuse to ban all political protests.

In Tunisia, a widespread rebellion was sparked when a young man set himself on fire, protesting unemployment and harassment by authorities. He later died, and his desperate act sparked copycat self-immolations in the Arab world, including in Algeria, where about 10 people set themselves ablaze, at least two of them dying.

Among the cases of self-immolation was an employee of Algeria's BDL bank, angry that after 20 years he still did not have a permanent work contract. Employees of the bank, which has 350 branches in Algeria, have been on strike for three days.

Hospital workers were also striking Wednesday, demanding better pay and benefits.

On Wednesday, the Algerian government issued its first statement on the protests that have rocked the Arab world for weeks. Foreign Minister Mourad Medecin told the official APS news agency that Algeria has historic relations with Tunisia and Egypt and "would always lend a helping hand to the people of those two countries."