Algerians protest economic hardships

Police and troops opened fire here yesterday to disperse hundreds of young demonstrators, ending a tense calm that had settled in after a week of nationwide unrest. Witnesses said at least 12 people were killed. Last week's riots, which by Sunday had left an estimated 200 people dead, led to a military crackdown late in the week and a police order to shoot demonstrators who refuse to disperse. The unrest is the worst Algeria has experienced since independence in 1962.

The unrest in this North African nation is fueled by sharp drops in the standard of living, high unemployment, and spiraling prices that result largely from low world oil prices and a burgeoning population. Oil is Algeria's main export commodity.

Yesterday's demonstration was reportedly called by Muslim fundamentalists, after the government of President Chadli Benjedid apparently rejected their demands for immediate economic changes.

The fundamentalists had warned of further unrest if the government refused to negotiate.

Early yesterday, the streets of the capital were busy with traffic, as the authorities announced a return to normalcy. But in an ongoing challenge to the government, calls went out for Algerians to gather outside mosques following midday prayer for ``strictly peaceful'' protest demonstrations in the eastern quarterof the city.

Witnesses said that the casualties occured when troops opened fire on Islamic militants who had answered the calls. Shooting also broke out on the edges of the heavily populated Belcourt district.

Islamic militants played little role in the initial unrest which began last Tuesday when workers staged nonviolent strikes to demand higher wages. But they have since come to the fore as the only organized opposition.

Algeria's annual unemployment rate is estimated at 40 percent, and food prices have risen by at least 40 percent since January. But the government has vowed to stick to an austerity plan prompted in part by the falling price of oil.

Additionally, the nation's population explosion poses a long-term worry. In 1966, Algeria's population was 12 million. Since then, it has increased to 25 million. Sixty percent of Algerians are under 20 years old.

The military command for Algiers has banned all public demonstrations and has threatened to use force to suppress them.

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