Algerian intelligence chief sacked, protests continue

Front pages of Algerian newspapers bearing headlines on General Athmane "Bachir" Tartag, who recently replaced General Mohamed Mediene. (File/AFP)
Updated 05 April 2019

Algerian intelligence chief sacked, protests continue

  • Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned from the presidency after a series of mass demontrations
  • Tartag was an ally for Bouteflika

ALGIERS: Algeria’s intelligence chief, Athmane Tartag, has been removed from his post, private Ennahar television station reported on Friday.
Tartag, a retired army general, was an ally of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who resigned on Tuesday in the face of mass protests.
His reported departure from the job came after Algeria’s military carefully managed Bouteflika’s exit in an attempt to defuse mass protests calling for democratic reforms.

A vast crowd of protesters flooded the streets of Algiers Friday, the first mass demonstrations since the resignation of ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and a show of strength by those pushing demands for reform.

Activists chanted slogans demanding key Bouteflika loyalists follow his lead and quit, after social media calls for “joyful demonstrations” to “peacefully bring down a dictatorial regime.”

No official figures were immediately available on the size of the rally, but it was at least as big as those held on previous Fridays leading up to Bouteflika’s departure.

Opponents of the old regime have called for a massive turnout, targeting a triumvirate they dub the “3B” — Senate speaker Abdelakder Bensalah, head of the Constitutional Council Tayeb Belaiz and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui.

The veteran Bouteflika loyalists have been entrusted with overseeing the political transition after the veteran leader finally stepped down at the age of 82.

Bouteflika resigned late on Tuesday after weeks of demonstrations triggered by his bid for a fifth term in office. After two decades in power, he had lost the backing of key supporters including armed forces chief Ahmed Gaid Salah.

Bensalah, speaker of the upper house of Parliament for 16 years, is to take the reins as interim president for three months until elections are organized.

Belaiz, a minister for 16 years, was named by Bouteflika as head of the Constitutional Council which will regulate the elections.

Before his appointment as prime minister, Bedoui had served as interior minister — or, as the French-language El Watan newspaper put it on Thursday, “chief engineer of electoral fraud.”

Opponents say all three are tarnished by their long years of service under Bouteflika and should follow his lead and resign.

Even hours before the rally started, several hundred demonstrators had gathered outside the main post office in central Algiers, which has been the epicenter of the protest movement.

Some shouted “we will not forgive!” in reference to an open letter Bouteflika issued after his resignation, apologizing to the Algerian people for “mistakes made.”

Said Wafi, a bank worker from the nearby city of Boumerdes, had arrived at 5 a.m. in hope of being “the first demonstrator against the system.”

“Bouteflika leaving means nothing if his men continue to run the country,” the 42-year-old said.

Samir Ouzine, 19, a student, agreed.

“Bouteflika was very sick. He wasn’t really governing, and nothing will change if he alone leaves and his men stay.”

One of the leading voices of the protest movement, lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi, has called for the demonstrations to continue “until they have all gone.”

“Our victory is partial,” he said in a video posted online.

“Algerians will not accept that symbols of the regime... lead the interim period and organize the next elections.”

But protesters expressed hope that the system would see real change.

Zoubir Challal, who like many young unemployed Algerians had considered a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean to seek a better life in Europe, carried a sign bearing the slogan: “For the first time, I don’t want to leave you, my country.”

Protesters are calling for new transitional institutions to be set up to implement reforms and organize free elections.

“Sticking with the constitution would probably be met with quite a bit of protest, as protesters may be wary of elections not being fair, competitive and free,” said Isabelle Werenfels of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

“One option would be to name an independent and broadly accepted head for a transitional body,” she said.

Hamza Meddeb, an independent analyst in Tunisia, said Algeria was entering “a very delicate phase, because the street and the institutions are at risk of diverging.”

The army’s intentions are a key question, according to analysts.

Despite abandoning his patron Bouteflika who named him army chief in 2004, General Gaid Salah is still seen by protesters as a key defender of the “system.”

But protesters on Friday chanted: “The army and the people are brothers!“

Said Zeroual, 75, said he hoped Algeria would regain “our freedom and our sovereignty.”

“I hope to live long enough to see democracy in my country,” he said.

Tunisia toils to find final resting place for drowned migrants

Updated 22 July 2019

Tunisia toils to find final resting place for drowned migrants

  • A string of deadly shipwrecks since May have left the North African country overwhelmed with bodies

GABES: A putrid odour lingers outside a morgue in Tunisia’s coastal city of Gabes as dozens of bodies of would-be migrants to Europe pulled out of the sea await burial.
A string of deadly shipwrecks since May have left the North African country overwhelmed with bodies and struggling to find them a final resting place.
More than 80 drowned migrants have been retrieved from Tunisian waters — most of them victims of a deadly July 1 shipwreck that left only three survivors.
Fished out of the sea between the port city of Zarzis and the tourist island of Djerba in the south, their bodies were brought to Gabes hospital — the only facility in the region capable of taking DNA samples.
Under pressure from civil society groups, Tunisian authorities have stepped up efforts to systematically collect the DNA of each unidentified drowned migrant, hospital director Hechmi Lakhrech told AFP.
The samples could well be the only hope of informing the victims’ families of their fate, he added.
In the basement morgue, staff use surgical masks or simple scarves to fend off the stench of bodies stacked one top of the other on the floor.
Since July 6, the numbers have “overwhelmed” the morgue’s 30-body capacity, said Lakhrech.
With just two forensic doctors and two assistants, not to mention a lack of equipment, the facility is struggling to keep them properly stored, he added.
After forensic tests, the bodies are kept at the morgue until a burial site is found, which in Tunisia is complicated, according to Gabes governor Mongi Thameur.
Many municipalities have refused to allow the drowned migrants to be buried in their cemeteries.
“Some fear the bodies carry cholera, and others refuse to bury people in Muslim cemeteries if their religion is unknown,” he told AFP.
It comes down to “a problem of mentality and also of humanity in some cases,” he said, adding that many people needed to be “sensitised.”
At the Bouchama cemetery, the only one in Gabes to have so far accepted migrant bodies, 16 graves dug off to the side lie empty.
“My parents are resting here, I don’t want non-Muslims to be buried by their side,” said one local resident.
In front of the hospital, the stifling midday heat beats down as 14 white bags are carefully loaded onto the back of a garbage truck.
Once loaded, it will make the two-hour journey to Zarzis, where an improvised cemetery flooded with the bodies of migrants for several years is now full, and a new one has just been opened.
Each grave is marked with a simple plaque bearing the victim’s DNA file number and burial date.
“On July 12, we collected 45 bodies in one day!” said Zarzis deputy mayor Faouzi Khenissi, calling it a “phenomenal problem.”
The city has taken in the bodies “because we have this culture, we can’t just leave the remains unburied,” he said.
Zarzis is a hotspot for illegal departures to Europe and Khenissi says some of the city’s own youth have also been victims of the wrecks.
Municipal workers and officials take shifts volunteering after work to conduct the burials.
After three hours of prep under the blazing sun, 14 bodies are buried alongside the 47 others already laid to rest at the new site, just outside a shelter for rescued migrants.
Mongi Slim of the country’s Red Crescent called for “international mobilization” to address the issue which “does not concern Tunisia alone.”
“The country is already struggling to take care of rescued migrants, but even more so for those who’ve died.”