Police quell desert city clashes
Published 22/01/2014 | 12:42
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 south of Algiers, was reported calm today following a weekend of rioting that left one person dead, 10 wounded and dozens of shops and homes burned. The arrests came late yesterday.
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 on Monday to stabilise 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 said. "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 neighbourhoods.
Premier Abdelmalek Sellal visited Ghardaia on January 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 US 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% 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.