ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Thousands of Algerians defied a government ban on protests and a massive deployment of riot police to rally in the capital Saturday, demanding democratic reforms a day after similar protests toppled Egypt's authoritarian leader.
Heavily armed police tried to seal off the city of Algiers, blocking streets, lining up along the march route and setting up barricades outside the city to try to stop busloads of demonstrators from reaching the capital.
But despite the heavy security, thousands flooded into downtown Algiers, clashing with police who reportedly outnumbered them at least three-to-one. A human rights activist said more than 400 people were arrested.
Tensions have been high in this sprawling North African nation of 35 million since five days of riots in early January over high food prices. Despite its vast gas reserves, Algeria has long been beset by widespread poverty and high unemployment, and some have predicted it could be next Arab country hit by the popular protests that have already ousted two longtime Arab leaders in a month.
Protesters chanted "No to the police state!" and "Bouteflika out!" — a reference to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has led the nation since 1999.
The heavy police presence and barricades turned Saturday's 3-mile (5-kilometer) march into a rally at the First of May square.
Ali Yahia Abdenour, head of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, said women and foreign journalists were among those detained Saturday. Abdenour, 83, was also jostled by security forces who surrounded him and tried to persuade him to go home.
Under Algeria's nearly two-decades-long state of emergency, protests are banned in the capital, but many ignored repeated government warnings to stay away. One activist called Saturday's protest a key turning point.
"This demonstration is a success because it's been 10 years that people haven't been able to march in Algiers and there's a sort of psychological barrier," said Ali Rachedi, the former head of the Front of Socialist Forces party. "The fear is gone."
Organizers said an estimated 28,000 security forces were on hand for the protest, which they said drew about 10,000 participants. Officials put the protest turnout at around 1,500.
Said Sadi, head of the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy, RCD, said the scale of the police deployment showed "the fear of this government, which is in dire straits."
"We're going to continue to demonstrate and to defy the authorities until they fall," Sadi vowed.
Saturday's protest came just a day after an uprising in Egypt forced Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in power and a month after another "people's revolution" in neighboring Tunisia forced autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile on Jan. 14.
The success of those uprisings is fueling activists' hope for change in Algeria, although many in this conflict-scarred nation fear any prospect of violence after living through a brutal Islamist insurgency in the 1990s that left an estimated 200,000 people dead.
Saturday's rally was organized by the Coordination for Democratic Change in Algeria, an umbrella group for human rights activists, unionists, lawyers and others. It was called to press for democratic reforms but did not specifically demand that Bouteflika resign.
Bouteflika, a 73-year-old plagued with health problems, hails from a single-party system that has loosened but remained in power since Algeria's independence from colonial master France in 1962. Widely credited with pacifying a country ravaged by insurgency, Bouteflika is blamed for not doing enough to spread Algeria's oil and gas riches among his people.
Many Algerians see Bouteflika as too old and secluded to relate to the public. However, he handily won a third term in 2009, garnering 90 percent of the vote in a race that pitted him against five low-profile challengers.
To quell tensions after January's food riots, the government slashed the price of sugar and cooking oil. Last week, mindful of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests, authorities said the state of emergency — in place since 1992 — will be lifted in the "very near future." They warned that the ban on demonstrations in the capital would remain.
The Islamist insurgency was set off by the army's decision to cancel Algeria's first multiparty election in January 1992 in order to thwart a likely victory by a Muslim fundamentalist party. Scattered violence continues.
Jenny Barchfield in Paris contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.