Fire of sectarian conflict flares up in southern Algeria

Mediation fails

ALGIERS - Weeks of heightened tensions between rival communities in the flashpoint oasis town of Ghardaia in southern Algeria have erupted into violence, leaving one person dead and others hurt, officials said Monday.
Schools and shops were shut after a group of youths went on the rampage on Sunday, attacking five different neighbourhoods, and after a 39-year-old man was stabbed in the chest at his home.
Another 10 people were wounded in the desert town 600 kilometres (400 miles) south of Algiers, among them three policemen, Interior Minister Tayeb Belaiz said, cited by Algerian media.
"The clashes continued until 7:00 am (0600 GMT) this morning. The police managed to restore calm," Ahmed Baba Aissa, spokesman for the Ghardaia coordination committee, said.
His association was created a month ago to try to defuse ongoing tensions between the Chaamba community of Arab origin and the Mozabites, a Berber minority group which adheres to the Ibadi faith, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
"Until Sunday, a group of youths was spreading fear by attacking different neighbourhoods, one after the other. Then yesterday (Sunday), five neighbourhoods were attacked simultaneously," Baba Aissa said.
One Mozabite, Belhadj Kebaili, 29, was stabbed to death in his home and numerous others were wounded, he added.
Hamou Mesbah, a senior member of the opposition Socialist Forces Front (FFS) in Ghardaia, insisted the Chaambas and Mozabites had co-existed peacefully for centuries and accused "a gang of criminals" of being behind the latest violence, with the complicity of some police.
"Some want to create trouble in Ghardaia ahead of April's presidential elections," he said.
"The problem is that Ghardaia is fertile ground for stirring unrest. It's a transit town for drug trafficking."
Interior Minister Belaiz meanwhile ruled out the possibility of foreign involvement in the unrest, saying there was "no tangible proof that could confirm such a theory" in comments carried by national news agency APS.
But the FFS parliamentary group tabled a petition to demand an investigation into the tensions in Ghardaia.
In recent years, there have been numerous outbreaks of sectarian violence in the town that lies deep in the Sahara desert.
Resentment runs high in the region over the lack of opportunity despite its vast energy riches, with stability further undermined by illegal drug trafficking and the threat from Islamist militants.