Algerian protesters
© EPAAlgerian protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Algiers
Internet provision was blocked in parts of Algeria and there were claims of Facebook accounts being deleted as thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators were arrested in violent street demonstrations.

The Algerian government was blamed by protesters for preventing access to internet providers across much of the capital, Algiers, and other cities including Annaba for much of Saturday morning and afternoon in an attempt to prevent planned demonstrations gathering pace.

Plastic bullets and tear gas were used to try and disperse large crowds in major cities and towns, with 30,000 riot police taking to the streets in Algiers alone.

There were also reports of journalists being targeted by state-sponsored thugs to stop reports of the disturbances being broadcast to the outside world.

But it was the apparent government attack on the internet which was of particular significance to those calling for an end to President Abdelaziz Boutifleka's repressive regime.

Protesters mobilising through the internet were largely credited with bringing about revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

"The government doesn't want us forming crowds through the internet," said Rachid Salem, of Co-ordination for Democratic Change in Algeria.

"Security forces are armed to the teeth out on the street, and they're also doing everything to crush our uprising on the internet. Journalists, and especially those with cameras, are being taken away by the police.

"Many of our members are reporting that their Facebook accounts have been deleted. They can't communicate with others via the internet so have to use word of mouth. There are reports of this across Algiers, and Annaba, and other parts of the country. The government is clearly behind this."

Mohammed Said, another activist based in Algiers, said: "It's clear (that the government is) getting at the internet. Facebook is their first target - they are cutting off accounts. Internet use is impossible at the moment.'

The Algerian government later denied that access to the internet or social networking websites had suffered any disruption or restriction on its part. A spokesman for the Algerian Embassy in London dismissed the claim as "baseless". Meanwhile Facebook said there was no evidence of notable disruptions to their service, nor of accounts being deleted.

But a spokesman for Algerian internet monitor Remyses said: "It is possible that the blockages of the internet were not visible from abroad, according to the Iranian 'strangulation' model or by the cutting of domestic connections."

The Algerian pro-democracy protestors did not have the technological expertise to monitor nationwide internet use, nor indeed Facebook accounts, on Saturday.

President Hosni Mubarak had tried to shut down internet service providers during 18 days of protest before stepping down as Egyptian leader on Friday.

Mostafa Boshashi, head of the Algerian League for Human Rights, said: "Algerians want their voices to be heard too. They want democratic change.

"At the moment people are being prevented from traveling to demonstrations. The entrances to cities like Algeria have been blocked."

At least five people were killed in similar protests in Algeria in January, when the Interior Ministry said 1000 people were arrested.

On Saturday at least 500 had been arrested by early evening in Algiers alone, with hundreds more in Annaba, Constantine and Oran taking part in the so-called February 12 Revolution.

"The police station cells are overflowing," said Sofiane Hamidouche, a demonstrator in Annaba.

"There are running battles taking place all over the city. It's chaos. As night falls the situation will get worse."

Algeria has the eighth largest reserves of natural gas in the world, and is also oil-rich, but its youthful population suffers mass unemployment, a chronic lack of housing, and widespread poverty. Political corruption is also endemic.