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Algerian forces flood desert city to calm violence

January 22, 2014

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algeria has sent thousands of police officers to calm weeks of ethnic clashes in a southern desert city, and seven people have been arrested.

Ghardaia, a picturesque city perched on the edge of the Sahara desert 370 miles (600 kilometers) south of Algiers, was reported calm Wednesday following a weekend of rioting that left one person dead, 10 wounded and dozens of shops and homes burned. The arrests came late Tuesday.

The city is divided between of Algeria’s Mozabites, members of North Africa’s original Berber inhabitants and followers of the rare Ibadi sect of Islam on one hand, and Sunni Muslim Arab migrants.

For the past month, there have been intermittent clashes between young men from the two groups and over the weekend, a Mozabite man was stabbed to death. At least 30 shops were also set on fire, the state news agency said.

Around 3,000 policemen were sent Monday to stabilize the situation and the next day, the state news agency announced seven men had been arrested and were being investigated with another 16 in custody.

Hammou Mosbah, a Mozabite member of the opposition Front for Socialist Forces party, said the attacks were by criminal gangs allowed to exist by the local police forces.

“We have no problems with the Arabs, with whom we have coexisted for centuries,” he Told the Associated Press. “We have always called for the gendarmes (national police) to be deployed, and now with them calm has returned.”

Bouamer Bouhafs, an Arab elder in Ghardaia, told the online Tout Sur Algerie news site the clashes were the fault of Mozabite gangs attacking Arab neighborhoods.

Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal visited Ghardaia on Jan. 14 and met with community representatives in an effort to calm tension, but fighting resumed soon after he left.

Violence between the two communities has erupted in the past. A U.S. State Department cable on the 2009 clashes that left two dead and 100 others injured ascribed the violence to competition between the Arabs and Mozabites over land and resources as the populations swell.

“The slow police response and inability to contain sectarian violence in this recent incident is indicative of the difficulty that state institutions and officials face when trying to work in Ibadi communities,” the cable stated.

Algeria’s Berber, or Amazigh, community, which has its own language and makes up an estimated 30 percent of the population, is often at odds with the Arab majority, especially in the mountainous Kabylie region near the capital.

The ethnic tensions in Ghardaia, however, are somewhat unique in the country as it is one of the few areas where traditional Arab and Berber communities live side by side.

The country’s impoverished south has, however, been a constant scene of demonstrations calling for more jobs and investment from Algeria’s hydrocarbon wealth, which is largely located there.


Paul Schemm contributed to this report from Rabat, Morocco.

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