Ain Salah, Algeria - On February 28, the first violent clashes between the anti-shale gas protesters and police forces erupted in the Saharan city of Ain Salah, located about 1,200km south of Algiers. 

The two-day riots left 40 policemen injured, including two in serious condition, according to the Algerian interior ministry statement. 

For the first time since 1990, the national army has been directly involved in negotiating a truce with the demonstrators.

But since December 2014, the lives of the 40,000 inhabitants of Ain Salah has become a permanent sit-in. For more than two months, residents have been occupying the Somoud (resistance) square to protest against shale gas drilling.

The grassroots movement, that claims it is  "peaceful" and "eco-friendly", has also been staging demonstrations near the plant, where the country's oil company Sonatrach, in partnership with the American multinational corporation Halliburton, has been carrying out tests to measure Algeria's shale gas potential.

Abdelkader Bouhafs, 56, is a leading figure of the grassroots anti-shale gas movement in Ain Salah. He is also an engineer at the state-owned Sonatrach and founder of "Shems", an association that promotes eco-friendly projects in Ain Salah.

In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, Bouhafs spoke about his movement's goals and the mediation efforts conducted by the military between anti-shale gas activists and the police.


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Al Jazeera: How did the anti-shale gas movement came into being?

Abdelkader Bouhafs: On December 27, three ministers visited Ain Salah, including the minister of energy, to officially announce that Sonatrach had successfully completed the drilling of the first shale gas pilot wells, which is located, according to them, in the basin of Ahnet, about 150km from the city of Ain Salah. But that was a lie because the drilling activities have actually been taking place only 35km north of Ain Salah. 

The authorities launched the operations in June 2014, without telling us. Since then, the government has kept lying to the people of Ain Salah and Algerians in general.

Al Jazeera: Is that was when you decided to take to the streets?

Bouhafs: Exactly. The day after that official visit, a group of local scholars organised a meeting in Ain Salah to discuss the issue. We concluded that the government was rushing into the exploration of shale gas, while the hydraulic fracking technique is still controversial due to its impact on both the environment and public health. 

We were expecting that the government would run a public awareness campaign first, for a year at least, before planning to launch any operations. In coordination with the league of the associations of Ain Salah, the scholars and my NGO 'Shems' called for a sit-in in Somoud square, in downtown in January.

In Scotland, Norway and Netherlands, grassroots movements have managed to make their national administration stop the drilling activities, why couldn't we be successful in Ain Salah? We absolutely don't want Ain Salah to be remembered as the city that said 'yes' to shale gas. We want things to be done properly and not in hurry in order to avoid an ecological catastrophe.

Al Jazeera: Thousands of people have been taking part in the sit-in over the past two months. What do you exactly do in Somoud square?

Bouhafs: Most of the demonstrators had no experience. At the beginning, it wasn't easy. Spontaneously, some decided to be in charge of the logistics [water and food supplies], others of communication. We don't plan to create a political party or an association. 

We agreed to remain a popular, eco-friendly and pacifist movement. However, the young activists disagreed. They thought that they could force the government to back off only through violent actions.

We told them that this [violence] is exactly what the authorities were looking for and that we must remain peaceful to have a chance to be successful.

Al Jazeera: Last week, in what many described as a historic move, the Algerian army stepped in to quell the tensions between the anti-fracking activists and the police. Why did your movement call on the army to negotiate a truce?

Bouhafs: This was our last resort. Senior executives, under the tutelage of the ministry of interior, haven't been willing to talk to us. The army remained the last and sole institution open to dialogue.

When the peaceful protest took a violent turn on March 1, a military leader visited Ain Salah and mediated between the policemen and the young activists, who were surrounding the police office.

Both parties accepted the mediation efforts, thanks to him. The day after, during a visit to Ain Salah, the head of the 6th military region met with some representatives of the grassroots anti-shale gas movement.

He promised us that an investigation would be opened to determine whether individual police officers have used  'excessive force' against peaceful protesters.


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Al Jazeera: Your ecological movement was peaceful until last week. What triggered the clashes between the demonstrators and the security forces ?

Bouhafs: According to our sources, Sonatrach was about to move up another gear with the hydraulic fracking. That was unacceptable, for us. So, on February 28, a group of young anti-fracking demonstrators went to the Halliburton base camp, located about 10km north of Ain Salah.

In protest, they sprayed the walls of the camp with hostile slogans such as 'Dégage Halliburton' [French for Halliburton must leave']. 

The police forces provoked the young protesters, using racist words. They intentionally provoked them so riots spread quickly to the city of Ain Salah. I have never seen such scenes before, everybody was fighting against the police forces.

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Al Jazeera: What is the security situation in Ain Salah now?

Bouhafs: Peace has returned to the city but tensions are still running high. Thousands of soldiers have been deployed in the city as part of government preparations for a fresh round of confrontation.                                            

Al Jazeera: In a communique, the ministry of defence demanded you leave the Somoud square. Will you end the sit-in?

Bouhafs: Our ultimate goal is not to remain in the Somoud square forever. What we want from the government is to immediately end the drilling operation in Ain Salah and to hold a national and transparent discussion over two key issues: the exploration of unconventional resources in Algeria, and energy transition. 

In Scotland, Norway and Netherlands, grassroots movements have managed to make their national administration stop the drilling activities; why couldn't we be successful in Ain Salah? We absolutely don't want Ain Salah to be remembered as the city that said 'yes' to shale gas. We want things to be done properly to avoid an ecological catastrophe.

Al Jazeera: Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika once described shale gas as a 'gift from God'. Are you still optimistic?

Bouhafs: Unfortunately, I am not. President Bouteflika used to be considered almost like a 'God' by the people of Ain Salah, they always voted for him. 

Now, we no longer believe in him, Bouteflika isn't popular any more. I hope Algerians know that we have fought as hard as we could against this corrupt administration.

Source: Al Jazeera