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Thousands protest against attacks in Algeria

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Around 5,000 Algerians gathered in central Algiers on Sunday to protest against violence after two suicide attacks killed at least 57 people in the North African country.

Al Qaeda’s north Africa wing said it was behind the two attacks, one of which was originally intended to target President Abdelaziz Bouteflika himself, according to an Internet statement on Saturday.

“Terrorists are not Muslims” and “The Algerian people reject terrorism and support President Abdelaziz Bouteflika”, chanted the crowd, made up mainly of women.

The statement said al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb had masterminded Saturday’s suicide truck bombing at a coast guard barracks east of Algiers and an attack in the town of Batna less than 48 hours earlier.

The bomber in Batna, 430 km (270 miles) southeast of Algiers, was forced detonate his device prematurely after being discovered shortly before a scheduled visit by the Algerian leader, it said.

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The bomber blew himself up among a crowd waiting to see Bouteflika, killing 20 people.

The statement, whose authenticity could not be verified, said two al Qaeda fighters carried out the attacks “in defense of Islam and the Islamic nation”.

A truck packed with 800 kg (1,800 lb) of explosives was used in Saturday’s bombing at the coast guard barracks in the port of Dellys, 100 km (62 miles) east of Algiers, it said.

The blast destroyed the barracks, killing 37 people, hospital sources said. It was seen by the government as an attempt to wreck its efforts to end 15 years of political violence.

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“Violence is not the solution. Social and economic development is the best way to prevent youth from joining the terrorists,” said Fatima Rabia, one of the protesters gathered at an indoor stadium in central Algiers.

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Algiers government bans street demonstrations but allows indoor protest gatherings.

Flici Salima, a leader of the Association of the Victims of Terrorism, said: “We must fight terrorists until they are totally wiped out”.

“National reconciliation is the way to resolve the crisis,” shouted many in the rally organized by the country’s main trade union Algerian Workers General Union, known by its French acronym UGTA.

“Algeria of 2007 is different from Algeria of the year 1997,” said UGTA chief Abdelmajid Sidi Said, in reference to a year in which hundreds of civilians were killed in attacks the government blamed on Islamic rebels.

“Algeria is united against terrorism. The period of 1990s is over,” he added, in allusion to divisions among politicians over whether to negotiate with rebels or focus only on military operations against them.

Conflict broke out in Algeria in 1992 after military-backed authorities scrapped elections that an Islamist party was set to win. Up to 200,000 people are estimated to have been killed.