At least 22 people have died and dozens more have been wounded in clashes between rival Arab and Berber communities around the Algerian city of Ghardaia, on the edge of the Sahara desert, local officials told Algerian news agency APS.
Cars, homes, and public buildings were set on fire during the altercations, which took place in the regional capital of Ghardaia and in the nearby cities of Guerrara and Berianne. Ghardaia is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This violence is the latest in a number of incidents over the last two years. After centuries of peaceful cohabitation, members of the Arab Sunni Muslim Chaamba community have clashed with members of the Mozabite Berber community — which practices Ibadi Islam, separate from Sunni and Shia — in the M'zab valley.
In December 2013, violence erupted after a list of people who had been awarded social housing was made public. At the time, each community felt that the other community had been given preferential treatment. That same month, a Mozabite cemetery was desecrated.
So far, more people have died during Tuesday and Wednesday's clashes than in the previous two years of fighting.
Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika convened an emergency meeting Wednesday to tighten security in the region, with police backup arriving from the capital, Algiers, according to France 24.
According to reports, armed groups of Chaamba attacked Guerrara's Mozabite neighborhoods on Wednesday morning, and the Mozabite fought back. Nineteen people died, with most of the deaths caused "by firearms," according to a source cited by Jeune Afrique. A local official told French daily Le Figaro, "Most of the victims died after being hit in the head by projectiles."
Three people were killed Tuesday in similar clashes in the town of Berriane, north of Ghardaia.
"It's a real bloodbath," said Inab Boubekri, head of communications for the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH). "During the last two days, we've seen direct clashes between the two communities. The police intervened only at the end of the clashes, which probably explains why so many people died." Speaking to VICE News on Wednesday, Boubekri noted that the towns' layouts — mazes of "many small alleys" — was making it hard to secure the areas.
When contacted by VICE News, the Algerian interior ministry declined to comment on ongoing police efforts in the area.
Boubekri explained that the Mozabite, who settled in the M'zab region centuries ago, had historically been the majority community in the area, but today are outnumbered by the Chaamba. Many believe that the latest violence was sparked by the Mozabite's fear of the growing influence of the region's Arab community.
The Mozabite Berbers also believe that the police are more lenient with the Arab community, said Boubekri, noting that the Mozabite's religion forbids them from joining the predominantly Chaamba police force.
While fighting in the region may have the outward appearance of a sectarian conflict, such an explanation is too simplistic, says political scientist Hasni Abidi, who runs the Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World (CERMAM), in Geneva.
"The causes of the clashes that are rocking the region can never be reduced to religious disagreements between the two communities. They are sparked by actual incidents," said Abidi, who noted there'd been an "economic, social and cultural" abandonment by the state in the region.
Speaking to French daily Le Monde in February 2014, former governor of the Banque Centrale d'Algerie Abderrahmane Hadj Nacer said, "Local conflicts have always existed, but the State has disintegrated, all the while failing to build credibility [in the region]."
Boubekri echoed this sentiment, noting, "The failure of the State to govern a region where two communities, who don't have a shared history and have different religions, has encouraged some on the fringes of both communities to radicalize."
Bouteflika announced Wednesday that alongside beefed-up security in the region, the government would be rolling out new measures to support the region's economic and social development.
The region is also being failed by its legal institutions, said Boubekri, noting that none of those involved in the 2013 and 2014 killings had been brought before a court. "The local justice system and law enforcement forces are incapable of launching investigations," he said — an inefficiency that has fostered a sense of impunity in the region, and a growing tendency toward violence.
"Before, there were councils made up of wise men and leaders from both communities to ease the tension, but that no longer seems sufficient. The young people don't recognize themselves in these wise men, the population has evolved," Boubekri concluded.
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal is due to travel to the region on Thursday with a delegation of government ministers, in order to "assess the situation."
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray
Image of Ghardaia via daggett.fr/Flickr