Crowds throng Algerian cities to demand president step down

AP

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  • Algeria's new prime minister Noureddine Bedoui gives a press conference, in Algiers, Algeria, Thursday, March 14, 2019. Algeria's new prime minister is promising to create a government within days as the country faces mass protests calling on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)

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    Algeria's Vice Prime Minister Ramtane Lamamra gives a press conference, in Algiers, Algeria, Thursday, March 14, 2019. Algeria's new prime minister is promising to create a government within days as the country faces mass protests calling on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)

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    A teacher holds a placard during a protest in Algiers, Algeria, Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Algerian teachers gathered outside the central post office in the capital Algiers to protest President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's decision to delay next month's presidential election. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)

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    A teacher holds a placard during a protest in Algiers, Algeria, Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Algerian teachers gathered outside the central post office in the capital Algiers to protest President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's decision to delay next month's presidential election. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)

  • Algeria's new prime minister Noureddine Bedoui gives a press conference, in Algiers, Algeria, Thursday, March 14, 2019. Algeria's new prime minister is promising to create a government within days as the country faces mass protests calling on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)

  • 1

    Algeria's Vice Prime Minister Ramtane Lamamra gives a press conference, in Algiers, Algeria, Thursday, March 14, 2019. Algeria's new prime minister is promising to create a government within days as the country faces mass protests calling on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)

  • 2

    A teacher holds a placard during a protest in Algiers, Algeria, Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Algerian teachers gathered outside the central post office in the capital Algiers to protest President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's decision to delay next month's presidential election. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)

  • 3

    A teacher holds a placard during a protest in Algiers, Algeria, Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Algerian teachers gathered outside the central post office in the capital Algiers to protest President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's decision to delay next month's presidential election. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) With Algerian flags on their backs, people of all ages marched Friday through Algeria's capital and other cities amid heavy security for what could be decisive protests against longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The crowds packing leafy boulevards throughout central Algiers appeared bigger than a week ago, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand an end to Bouteflika's 20-year rule.

Chanting "Bouteflika, Get Out" and other slogans, diverse groups converged on three public plazas that have become focal points for an exceptional, month-long public uprising against the country's shadowy leadership. Their numbers surged after midday Muslim prayers.

Algerians have barely seen Bouteflika in public since he suffered a 2013 stroke, and many are angry at a power structure widely seen as corrupt. Millions struggle to make ends meet despite the country's gas wealth.

The warm spring sun seemed to encourage the protesters, who were so numerous that it was difficult to move on some streets in Algiers. Algerian media reported protests in several other cities around Africa's biggest country. Students, teachers, judges and unions were among those joining Friday's protests.

Riot police vans lined side streets of Algiers and surveillance helicopters circled overhead.

A group of young women delighted in taking selfies with smiling police officers. Shops along the march routes turned a brisk profit selling Algerian flags and pizza or honey-filled pastries. The diverse crowd included women with and without headscarves, and fathers carrying children on their shoulders.

The protesters want to send a mass message that they are rejecting Bouteflika's attempt this week to defuse Algeria's political crisis.

Bouteflika ceded to protesters' demands that he abandon plans for a fifth term, and promised reforms addressing concerns of frustrated, struggling youth. But he also canceled the April 18 presidential election, a move that critics fear could allow him to cling to power.

Police surrounding the Algiers' central post office appeared largely unarmed, and their plastic riot shields rested on the ground or in vans nearby. That could be a message from Algerian authorities known for their heavy-handed security posture that they want to avoid unrest or provoking public anger.

Among protesters' chants were "gang of thieves" and "you ruined Algeria, we don't want you." Others chanted "peaceful demonstration" in an effort to ensure that things don't get out of hand.

The crowd seemed determined to prevent any politicians from taking advantage of the protests for personal gain, shouting down outspoken left-wing figure Karim Tabou when he tried to give a speech.

Former colonial ruler France, too, came in for criticism for perceived support for Bouteflika. Several protesters carried signs saying "No Interference from France" or criticizing French President Emmanuel Macron.

Some protesters held signs reading "Army, People, Same Fight," in an apparent appeal to the powerful army not to crack down on demonstrations.

So far the protest movement has been calm, with just a few incidents of violence on the sidelines. But the specter of past violence haunts many Algerians, notably a civil war in the 1990s between Islamic insurgents and security forces that left some 200,000 dead.

Bouteflika is credited with helping reconcile the nation after that, but is accused of becoming increasingly out of touch as his presidency dragged on.

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Angela Charlton contributed from Paris.

  

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