Algerians protest, celebrate independence day amid tensions

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ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Tens of thousands of Algerians took to the streets for the 20th straight Friday to demand new democratic leadership and celebrate their country’s hard-fought independence from colonial France.

Amid extra-high security and resurgent anger at authorities, crowds wearing Algerian flags on their shoulders, heads and waists poured into the capital Algiers for Friday’s pro-democracy protest on the country’s national holiday to mark Algeria’s 1962 independence.

The peaceful revolt that began in February helped drive out longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April. Demonstrations were held in at least a dozen other cities on Friday.

Protesters were also venting their indignation at the arrests last week of several activists brandishing Berber emblems and of Lakhdar Bouregaa, a veteran of Algeria’s independence war.

Authorities accused the activists of threatening Algeria’s unity by celebrating Berber identity. They also say the 82-year-old veteran is damaging the army’s morale by criticizing the powerful military chief.

“What shame a man who liberated the country spends the 57th year anniversary of independence in prison” read one banner. Calls to free Bouregaa rang out at protest marches in other cities where citizens marched.

In Algiers, the capital, authorities deployed an unusually large number of police, who confiscated Berber flags from protesters entering the city. Police surrounded the plaza at the central post office that has been a nucleus of the revolt.

Protesters hope Friday’s demonstration breathes new life into the movement, which is divided over how to achieve lasting change.

“Yes to a civilian state! No to a military dictatorship” read one sign; another read “No dialogue with traitors,” in reference to an appeal this week by interim President Abdelkader Bensalah for dialogue ahead of presidential elections. He has proposed to create a new “entity” to arrange the elections, and promised that both the government and military would not take part.

Powerful army chief, Ahmed Gaid Salah, is another target of protesters. After helping to push Bouteflika from office, he has made numerous calls for quick presidential elections and backed a major anti-corruption sweep that has put generals and industrialists in jail. However, many fear his high-profile role since the start of the revolt augurs the return to center-stage of a military-style regime, like the one that led Algeria through much of its independence.

Friday’s protest comes a day before a conference planned by opposition parties and representatives of the civilian sector to come up with a plan for a transition period.

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