June 17, 2007 / 3:07 PM / in 12 years

Maghreb road threatens Algeria park-petition

ALGIERS, June 17 (Reuters) - Environmentalists urged the Algerian government on Sunday to protect a major Mediterranean wetland threatened by the construction of a $11 billion highway seen by the authorities as key to boosting Maghreb trade.

They warned in a petition to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika the El Kala coastal park of marshes and forests would eventually disappear unless the 1,200 km (750 mile) road intended to link Algeria to Tunisia and Morocco was routed around it.

The road is currently due to be built across the 800 sq km (300 square miles) northeastern park, the home of many varieties of predator birds, fox, lynx, tortoise and wild cat, under a plan to build the first ever direct motorway between Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

Public Works Minister Amar Ghoul said in remarks published on Sunday the project was economically profitable and the government was determined to complete it.

"It is no longer admissible to revise the line because we should take into consideration the fate of this highway once achieved," he told Liberte newspaper.

"The highway will affect only 0.2 percent of the park area, estimated at 800 square kilometres," he said, adding re-routing the road would cost about $2 billion, six times the cost of that portion of the highway as currently planned.

But environmentalists and worried members of the public including journalists said the government would be breaking a commitment it entered into under Algerian law when it created the park in 1983 to protect the area from environmental damage.

In addition, the park contains one site that Algeria has undertaken to protect under the 1971 Ramsar Convention on the protection of wetlands, the Ramsar website shows.

In the petition published in El Watan daily, more than 100 signatories said the project should avoid the park because it would undermine its status as a protected zone and make it more vulnerable to other development.

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