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Violence hits Bouteflika rally in Algeria


Violence forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's camp to call off an election rally in eastern Algeria on Saturday, as tensions run high over the ailing veteran's bid for a fourth term.

In contrast, Bouteflika's main rival, Ali Benflis, was cheered by thousands of supporters who gathered for a rally in his southern hometown of Batna.

Campaigning for the April 17 presidential election started on March 23, with incumbent Bouteflika, 77, aiming to clinch another term but without taking to the road due to health concerns.

He will square off against five other presidential hopefuls -- including Benflis -- and is widely expected to win despite protests against his candidacy.

But on Saturday, protesters stormed the venue for Bouteflika's rally in the eastern Kabylie region and torched portraits of the president.

Demonstrators also attacked the crew of En-Nahar television covering the rally, the channel's chief Anis Rahman told AFP, adding that four journalists were injured.

Former premier Abdelmalek Sellal, who quit to become Bouteflika's campaign manager, scrapped the rally.

"I called off the meeting for the sake of security, nothing more, nothing less," Sellal said on En-Nahar, a pro-Bouteflika channel.

Sellal and other Bouteflika aides have been doing the leg work for the president, who is too frail to campaign after a mini stroke last year confined him to hospital in Paris for three months.

Television channels broadcast footage showing demonstrators outside a cultural central in Bejaia where the rally was to be held.

A crowd of some 250 demonstrators chanted "Bouteflika out", with some of them storming the hall and assaulting the En-Nahar crew, witnesses said.

- Benflis feted in hometown -

Bouteflika's campaign headquarters blamed the violence on the Barakat movement (Arabic for 'That's Enough') formed to oppose his candidacy.

"The fascists from the (election) boycott movement Barakat assisted by their allies in the MAK (Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie)," were to blame for Saturday's violence, it said in a statement.

"The aggressors... brandished signs with messages against the election and used projectiles to attack citizens, and wounded policemen and journalists, one of whom suffered a broken arm," it added.

Rahmani blamed Benflis supporters for the violence.

"It's a dangerous escalation coming from a specific candidate. We ask him to renounce violence and terror as the path to El-Mouradia," he said of the Algiers district housing the presidential palace.

National news agency APS said riot police dispersed the protesters and escorted news crews to the airport.

Sellal later took the campaign to the Algiers working class district of Bab el Oued but made no mention of the Bejaia incident in his speech.

Benflis, meanwhile, was feted in Aures, his electoral constituency and cradle of Algeria's 1954-1962 war of independence against France.

Thousands packed the sports complex of the city of Batna, 430 kilometres (260 miles) southwest of Algiers, an AFP journalist said.

Earlier in the day, his convoy was repeatedly stopped by supporters on the main road from Biskra, 100 kilometres away.

"Fraud is my principal adversary," Benflis, who was beaten in the 2004 election by Bouteflika, told AFP in Biskra.

The two men had been close during Bouteflika's first five-year term between 1999 and 2004, before they split and Benflis was sacked as prime minister in 2003.

"It must be remembered that in 2004 fraud was victorious and democracy was the loser," said Benflis.

But he said he would fight any attempt at fraud this time "with 60,000 observers" to keep an eye on the country's 60,000 polling stations.