ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria on Thursday announced the detention of the leader of its former ruling party, as authorities strove to quell months of mass protests ahead of an election planned for December.
The court order against National Liberation Front (FLN) chief Mohamed Djemai for “destruction of official files and documents” came as the government steps up its pressure on a loose-knit opposition movement that has filled the streets of Algiers every week since February.
Following the arrest of several prominent opposition activists since the election was announced, it underscored the authorities’ approach of combining concessions with a tougher stance toward street protests.
That strategy may face a test on Friday, the first major protest day since the announcement on Sunday that an election would go ahead on Dec. 12.
Demonstrators have so far rejected any election until there is a more thorough purging of the ruling elite, which they say is the only way to guarantee a free and fair vote.
The demonstrations forced veteran President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power in April, and led an army-backed government to start a crackdown on alleged corruption and cronyism among his closest allies.
FLN had been Algeria’s ruling party since the energy-rich country won independence from France in 1962.
The powerful army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Saleh, has urged the courts to speed up prosecution of people suspected of involvement in corruption.
Dozens of decision makers, including Bouteflika’s youngest brother Said who served as the de facto ruler in the past years, two intelligence chiefs, two prime ministers and several influential tycoons are behind bars.
However, protesters continue to demand the uprooting of the rest of what they describe as the “gang”.
There have been fresh signs this week that official patience is wearing thin. Gaed Saleh on Wednesday ordered police to seize buses and other vehicles transporting protesters into the capital.
On Wednesday night, authorities arrested Fodil Boumala, a prominent opposition activist and anti-government protester, fellow activists and a lawyer said on Thursday.
Boumala’s arrest, though not immediately confirmed by the justice ministry, was the latest sign of a new clampdown on dissent following the detention of three other leading opposition activists in recent weeks.
Lakhdar Bouragaa, Karim Tabou and Samir Belarbi, have been accused of “contributing to weakening the army’s morale” according to their lawyers.
Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry said on Thursday that two men were killed in clashes in a small west Algerian town late on Wednesday after a protest over a road collision involving a police vehicle that killed a man.
Several government buildings were also damaged during the clashes on Wednesday night in the town of Oued Rhiou, 350 km (218 miles) west of the capital Algiers.
Dozens of angry people went to a police station after a police car collided with a motorbike and tried to seize the driver, the ministry said.
Reporting By Lamine Chikhi; Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Editing by Angus McDowall, Timothy Heritage and Alex Richardson