ALGIERS // Up to 2,000 demonstrators evaded massed police yesterday to rally in a central Algiers square demanding that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika step down.
Ringed by hundreds of anti-riot forces, some carrying automatic weapons in addition to clubs and shields, they waved a large banner reading "Regime, out" and chanted slogans borrowed from the mass protests in Tunis and Cairo.
But police deployed in the thousands prevented a planned march of four kilometres from May 1 Square to Martyrs Square.
The demonstrators included both the head of the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), Said Sadi, and his one-time arch enemy Ali Belhadj, the former leader of the now-banned Islamist Salvation Front.
A knot of police surrounded Mr Sadi to prevent him using a megaphone to address the crowd, while a number of arrests were made. By the afternoon, only about 150 mainly young protesters were left in a corner of the square still chanting defiantly.
But Fodil Boumala, one of the founders of the National Coordination for Change and Democracy (CNCD), which called the march, was jubilant. "We've broken the wall of fear. This is only a beginning," he said. "The Algerians have won back their capital."
There were scuffles with security forces and numerous arrests well before the march had been due to begin, witnesses said.
Authorities said 14 people had been held and then released.
Those arrested included two RCD deputies, Othmane Maazouz and Feta Sadad, as well as Mr Boumala, of the CNCD.
Expressing outrage, Mr Sadi said the veteran human rights campaigner Ali Yahia Abdelnour, age 90, had been manhandled by police.
He said police had already violently dispersed a gathering on Friday of people celebrating Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's downfall and made 10 arrests.
"It wasn't even an organised demonstration. It was spontaneous," he said.
From early yesterday, authorities took strict measures against the planned protest with nearly 30,000 police deployed in the capital along the proposed route of the march.
Anti-riot vehicles and water cannon were seen ready for action near the square where it was scheduled to begin.
In the main western city of Oran, between 400 and 500 protesters also rallied yesterday for a demonstration which the opposition said had been banned by the authorities, though the interior ministry denied it.
A dozen arrests were made, according to media reports. They included the local CNCD leader and his son, two journalists and two mime artists with their faces whitened and black crosses on their lips.
The CNCD, an umbrella group of opposition parties, civil society movements and unofficial unions announced the march in Algiers when it was set up only three weeks ago.
The CNCD is demanding the immediate end of Mr Bouteflika's regime, citing the same problems of high unemployment, housing problems and soaring costs. Mounting grievances triggered riots in early January that left five dead and more than 800 injured.
A protest called by the CNCD in Algiers on January 22 left many injured as police blocked a march on parliament.
The protesters have used Facebook and text messages to spread their call for change.
Mr Bouteflika has acted to curb price rises and promised political concessions, including pledging to lift a two-decade state of emergency, which the opposition says do not go far enough.