Algerian Berbers March in Memory of Slain Singer

By Abdelmalek Touati

Monday, June 25, 2001; 7:37 AM

TIZI OUZOU, Algeria, June 25—Tens of thousands of ethnic minority Berbers marched calmly through an Algerian city on Monday to remember a slain protest singer, avoiding the bloodshed that has marked recent anti-government protests.

The demonstration in Tizi Ouzou, a city of 200,000 people 55 miles east of the capital Algiers, called on the authorities to re-open the investigation into the killing, three years ago to the day, of beloved Berber musician Lounes Matoub.

It was another strong show of Berber protest in the tense Kabylie region of the North African country.

In the past two months, street clashes have erupted almost daily in a wave of violence sparked by the death of a Berber teenager in police custody in the region. It has left scores of people dead.

Matoub was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in a 1998 ambush near his native village of Taourirt Moussa, 15 miles south of Tizi Ouzou.

His death at 42 sparked anti-government riots in Kabylie in which hundreds of Berber youths were wounded.

The current Berber revolt started in Kabylie but has spread to other provinces, fuelled by deep anger among the mainly young population over lack of jobs, housing shortages and abuses by security forces, particularly paramilitary gendarmes.

At least 55 protesters have been shot dead by security forces in Kabylie in the latest bloodshed, and about 1,800 people have been injured, according to official figures.

The mainly young demonstrators, sporting black armbands and waving black banners in sign of mourning for the deaths of rioters in recent weeks, chanted anti-government slogans in French and the Berber language Tamazight.

"Stop the repression" and "Oulach smah" (no forgiveness), they called.

Organisers urged marchers by loudspeakers to remain calm and "not respond to provocations."

A massive protest march by Berbers in Algiers 11 days ago turned into a riot after demonstrators clashed with security forces.

"We are here to demand the truth about Matoub's death," said a 35-year-old man who gave his name as Mohand A, from the village of Ouacis, 35 km (20 miles) east of Tizi Ouzou.

"We are also here to tell those responsible of this chaos that they must go."

Government officials blamed Matoub's killing on Islamic rebels, who have been waging a bloody insurgency since 1992, and said four of the presumed killers were arrested and awaiting trial.

But Matoub's family rejected this, calling the investigation "slapdash" and asking for ballistics experts and key witnesses to be heard at a new trial.

Matoub was known for caustic songs against the authorities, whom he accused of denying Berber culture and language.

His last album, released a few days after his death, included a Berber version of the Algerian national anthem in which he branded political leaders as "traitors."

The marchers, who were holding pictures of Matoub, stopped in front of the gendarmerie barracks to observe a minute of silence in memory of protesters shot dead in recent weeks.

"We want Matoub's killers to be tried," one organiser said by loudspeaker.

On the wall of the barracks, an inscription summed up the tone of the popular revolt of the past weeks: "Gendarmes murderers! We are not Arabs, Tamazight in school."


© 2001 Reuters