Mon, May 26, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Crowds turn against Algerian president

AP , BOUMERDES, ALGERIA

The death toll from a devastating earthquake in northern Algeria rose to more than 2,000 yesterday, hours after furious crowds hurled debris and insults at the country's president when he visited the quake zone.

Many blame the government for the high death toll and shortages of food and water after the 6.8-magnitude quake flattened villages east of Algiers on Wednesday. The Interior Ministry said at least 2,047 people were killed and 8,626 injured, the official APS news agency reported.

The death toll was expected to rise as bodies were pulled from the rubble and Hakim Mohand, of the Algerian civil protection unit, said it could reach 3,000.

The anger came as Japanese rescue workers said they pulled a survivor -- a 21-year-old waiter -- from the rubble of a hotel on the Mediterranean coast at midnight Friday.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika tried to tour the quake-ravaged town of Boumerdes on Saturday, but angry crowds harangued him with shouts of "pouvoir assassin!" -- a common slogan roughly translated as "the authorities -- killers."

Bouteflika cut his visit short. Police fought to hold back the crowd as he drove away, with many people throwing chunks of rubble and other objects at his car and some kicking the cars in his motorcade.

The president faced similar anger later in the day in Lakhdaria, where one elderly protester loudly accused the government of misappropriating international aid meant for quake victims.

He later shrugged off the protests, calling them "testimony to the vitality of Algerian youth."

The abuse directed at Bouteflika and other officials was a bold display of criticism against a military-backed government known to clamp down on dissent.

Amid the strife and destruction, Japanese aid workers -- after hours of digging through the wrecked Adim Beach Resort at Zemmouri -- rescued a man who somehow had escaped injury.

"It was almost a miracle. He was unscathed," said Toshimitsu Ishigure, director of the Japanese Overseas Disaster Assistance. "He was able to breathe because he had a half-foot of space from a slab lying on top."

Hope of finding further survivors, however, was evaporating. Ishigure said rescues became far less likely more than 72 hours after a quake, and British officials said Saturday they soon would withdraw rescue workers and replace them with relief and recovery experts.

The threat of disease was rising, they said, especially with temperatures rising to almost 40?C.

"Other risks such as infection must be tackled," Willie McMartin of Britain's International Rescue Corps told the Press Association news agency in Algeria. "There is an immediate need for disinfectant to be sprayed."

People across the quake zone accused the government of inadequately providing food, medicine and blankets. Some said government failure to rush mechanical diggers to affected areas delayed rescues and contributed to the death toll.

In Bordj Menaiel, a town of 20,000 built largely by Algeria's former French colonial rulers, residents claimed the government had done nothing to help them.

They said the lack of necessities was exacerbating tensions between the ethnic Berbers who live here and Algeria's Arab-run government.

A 45-year-old entrepreneur who would only give his name as Rabah said he was among several hundred protesters when Interior Minister Nourredine Yazid Zerhouni toured the town Friday.

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