Thousands protest in Algeria capital, break police cordon
ALGIERS - Thousands of people protested for a twentieth consecutive week in Algeria's capital on Friday, defying a major police presence and after the interim president renewed a plea for dialogue.
"Go, liberate Algeria!", protesters chanted, waving the national flag, as they kept up pressure for regime insiders to step aside, more than three months after forcing longtime ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika into resigning.
Amid shouts of "Long live Algeria! Our claims are legitimate!", hundreds of the protesters successfully forced their way through a police cordon and headed for the esplanade of the main post office, a symbol of the protest movement.
Other chants glorified the martyrs of Algeria's war of independence, on what is the country's 57th anniversary of liberation from French rule.
Around a dozen protesters were arrested, witnesses said.
Rallies were held in at least 21 of Algeria's 48 regions, the official APS news agency reported.
Ranks of police officers wearing helmets and equipped with shields had tried to block the protesters and confine them to a pavement around 10 metres (yards) from the esplanade, while dozens of police vans were stationed near the post office.
Scuffles broke out at the end of the Algiers protest, when police officers grabbed the Berber flag -- banned from protests -- from demonstrators' hands and removed it from streetlights.
Police used tear gas and charged against protesters, who responded by hurling plastic bottles at the officers.
The latest mobilisation comes two days after interim president Abdelkader Bensalah called for a national dialogue, in which he promised the state and army would remain neutral.
His mandate is theoretically due to expire on Tuesday and he warned on Wednesday against the risk of the country falling into a constitutional vacuum.
"Wherever you are, we are -- we will not stop!" the protesters shouted, referring to the government.
They also chanted slogans against any elections organised by a "mafia gang".
An already delayed presidential election was postponed again early last month from a planned date of July 4, after only two potential runners -- both little known -- submitted their candidacies.
The regime "is in the process of reformulating the same propositions -- their only objective is to keep the current system in place," said Linda Hamrouche, a 28-year-old protester.
"Therefore (we say) no dialogue in these conditions," she added.
A first call for dialogue by Bensalah -- launched in early June -- had been limited to the political classes.
The interim president has said he will remain in place until elections are organised.
According to independent news site TSA, his latest call for dialogue risks being rejected "if the authorities don't quickly announce concrete appeasement measures".
Opposition parties, civil society figures and observers are waiting to see how his proposal will play out, because nobody has yet been named to take part in the proposed dialogue.
"I will go out (on the streets) on Friday as I have done for four months -- until the election of a legitimate president," said Ali, a bank worker.
"We have achieved a big goal -- Bensalah will not drive the dialogue, he is out, even if he remains in office" nominally, the 47-year-old added.
On Saturday, political parties, civil society representatives and national personalities are due to hold a meeting dubbed the "National Forum for Dialogue", which is being held outside the orbit of Bensalah's planned talks.
The initiative "seeks to put in place mechanisms to end the crisis and move, in a reasonable time-frame, towards the organisation" of a presidential election, according to Abdelaziz Rahabi, a former minister who has backed the protests.
Alongside the creation of independent institutions, protesters are demanding that the police stop arresting demonstrators.
Amnesty International on Friday said 41 people have been arrested in recent days for flying the Berber flag during demonstrations, in what it dubbed an "escalating... crackdown on peaceful protesters".
In a statement, the rights group called "on the Algerian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the 34 protesters who remain in detention and to respect and protect" the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Algeria's Berber minority has long suffered marginalisation, and army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah has banned all flags other than the national colours at rallies.
Protesters and many observers view Salah, who has consistently refused their demands, as the key powerbroker in the country, and believe Bensalah wields little real influence.