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Mega pan-African festival kicks off in Algeria

A huge pan-African festival gathering more than 8,000 artists and writers from all over Africa including Togo, as well as Brazil and the United States, got under way here on Saturday.

Algeria is hosting the Second Pan-African Cultural Festival at the request of the African Union, 40 years after the north African country staged the first such event, when several nations were still struggling for independence.Brazil and the United States are guests at the giant festival, where more than 20,000 Algerian artists will also be taking part until July 20, according to Zouaoui Benhamadi of the Panaf II executive committee.

"Panaf is the biggest rally in the world of artists and intellectuals in the same place at the same time, which will include all facets of human culture," Benhamadi said.

The festival officially begins on Sunday on Algerian independence day, with a megaconcert at a stadium in the capital prepared by choreographer Kamel Ouali.

But Algerians and the many guests got a first taste on Saturday, when a parade of showboat-style floats representing each African country and the guest nations rolled through Algiers from Tafourah in the city centre to the old Bab El-Oued quarter, a working-class district.

Among those on the bill are Algerian musicians Cheb Khaled and Ouarda El Djazairia, with Senegal's Youssou Ndour and Ismael Lo, Cesaria Evora from Cape Verde, dance troupes from all over Africa, and other musicians, dancers, stage and screen stars like actress Isabelle Adjani, and many less-well known younger performers.

"We expect this gathering to lead to an emergence of fresh talent in music, the arts and the other activities on the programme," Culture Minister Khalida Toumi said.

"We also want this to be a kind of survey of the state of culture in Africa," Toume added.

The festival will not just be in Algiers, for events are scheduled in other towns in the north of the country, including Boumerdes, Blida and Tipaza, where all the concerts and shows will be free and open to all.

Nor is Panaf II purely a massive artistic festival, because literature from around Africa will be represented, ranging from novels to comic books, and some of the guests are writers and academics who have been invited to present their work and take part in symposiums on literature.

There will also be conferences on colonisation and the continent's struggle for independence. The first Panaf in July 1969, seven years after Algeria won its freedom from France in a bitter war, was devoted to decolonisation, which still had to reach Namibia, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and other countries, while South Africa was then under the yoke of apartheid.

Panaf II is about "the renaissance of African culture," Culture Minister Toumi said, adding that part of the festival's aim was to impress "minds and the imagination to show and tell the world that Africa is back."

About 22,000 police will be on the alert throughout the festival to counter any risk of terrorist attacks, according to a note published on the Panaf II website:

In the 1990s, Algeria was wracked by low-level civil war between the secular state and Islamic extremists, but under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's rule, thousands of the armed fundamentalists took advantage of an amnesty offer.

Sporadic clashes still take place between the security forces and extremists, but civilians are usually no longer targets.

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