/ 16 May 2007

Bombs explode on eve of Algerian polls

Bombs killed a police officer and wounded five other people on Wednesday on the eve of parliamentary elections in Algeria, prompting fears of renewed Islamist extremism.

The blasts, in Algeria’s third-biggest city, Constantine, came 48 hours after the North Africa branch of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network called on Algerians to boycott Thursday’s polls.

It was the most serious incident in an Algerian city since triple suicide bombings on April 11 in the capital, Algiers, claimed by al-Qaeda, that claimed 30 lives and left 220 injured.

Two homemade bombs, hidden in plastic bags, went off on Wednesday morning in the working-class Daksi district of Constantine — one near a café, the other in the centre of a traffic roundabout, a police source said.

It appeared that the bombs were meant to have been planted at a nearby market, before police intercepted a man who was carrying them. According to security officials, the man ditched the bags and took flight. But a witness said that one of the bombs went off in his hands, though it was unclear whether he was killed or injured.

Interior Minister Yazid Zaerhouni condemned the blasts as ”an act of sabotage against the Algerian democratic system” and urged Algerians to go to the polls on Thursday in big numbers ”to show their attachment to democracy”.

”The best way to respond to such attacks is a strong turnout for the parliamentary elections,” he said on Algerian public radio.


Heightened security is expected for Thursday’s elections for the National People’s Assembly, for which the Interior Ministry has ordered trucks to stay off the roads and markets to be closed.

In a recording aired this week by al-Jazeera television, al-Qaeda called on Algerians to snub the polls, which are expected to see political parties aligned with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika retain a majority.

”These elections are nothing but a farce that is not different from other farces seen before in Algeria,” said Abu Mussaab Abdul Wadud, leader of al-Qaeda in North Africa.

”If you take part in these elections, you will be sharing those apostates’ flagrant act,” he asserted in the audio tape recording that was aired by al-Jazeera on Monday. ”Express your opinion and renounce these elections. You only need to boycott or abstain from voting.”

Since the April 11 bombings, security forces have redoubled their campaigns against stubborn pockets of Islamist extremists in remote parts of oil- and gas-rich Algeria, diplomats say.

On the road

Bouteflika (70) whose health has been the subject of much recent speculation, was on Wednesday continuing a two-day visit to the Mediterranean port city of Annaba, near the border with Tunisia.

Zerhouni, the Interior Minister, travelling to Annaba on Tuesday with the president, told reporters that ”we must be reassured by the results of the anti-terrorist struggle”.

He added that Islamist extremism cannot be allowed to impact on Bouteflika’s policy of national reconciliation. That policy has largely tamed an Islamist insurgency that cost an estimated 150 000 lives in the 1990s.

Overall, many politicians have been less concerned by terrorism than by a palpable lack of enthusiasm in the parliamentary elections among Algeria’s 18,3-million registered voters, raising the spectre of a low turnout.

”Democracy cannot be created if one turns his back on the ballot box,” Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem said in Algiers. ”Chosing between political parties and programmes is not just a civic act, but [also] a way to deepen democracy.”

The National People’s Assembly, in which the venerable National Liberation Front holds the most seats, is seen by Algerians as a largely toothless body, in a country where power is centralised in the presidency.

Bouteflika, first elected in 1999, is due to step down at the end of his current second term, but no one is ruling out the prospect of a constitutional amendment to enable him to seek a third mandate in 2009. — Sapa-AFP