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Early one morning in April, a desperate young Algerian man slipped into a warehouse on the outskirts of Algiers and sealed himself inside a shipping container destined for France.

The guard he had bribed to let him into the warehouse begged him to reconsider.

"He took me in his arms. He tried to dissuade me, telling me how dangerous it was," said 27-year-old Noureddine Branine.

Every year, tens of thousands of impoverished Africans lured by Europeís prosperity risk their lives attempting to reach the continent illegally. European Union officials estimate the number doubled this year, though they have no firm figures.

Some brave the sea in rickety boats like the dozens of Africans rescued from the waters off Malta last week, or the thousands who have crossed by boat this year to Spainís Canary Islands. Others, like Branine, pack themselves into containers for an equally perilous journey to France.

On the eve of his departure, Branine assembled his provisions: $250 in cash, a 1.3-gallon can of water, an MP3 player with a recording of the Quran and rífis _ grilled couscous with dates and butter _ his mother had cooked for him.

"I thought heíd acquired a visa," said Ayni Branine, 76, Noureddineís mother. "If Iíd known he was going to travel in a container, I would have called the police myself because itís madness."

But she doesnít fault her son for his determination to leave.

"He has no work here, and look at the conditions we live in," she said, gesturing at the three-room apartment she shares with her husband, four children and two grandchildren.

Branine was kicked out of school in 1992 when he was 13 years old. For years, he made ends meet by importing clothing from Turkey and Syria, until going out of business in 2000. He then sold fruit and vegetables on the black market when he could, but was among the approximately 30 percent of Algerians _ the majority of them young _ who are officially unemployed.

"If he can leave, why not be relieved of the miseries of this country?" his mother said.

But not all agree with Branineís method for escaping. Nasser Djabi, a sociology professor at the University of Algiers, said his decision to stow away in a container amounted to suicide.

"Taking recourse to such means shows an absolute despair, since 90 percent of those who try this kind of adventure know they will die before reaching the other side," Djabi said.

Branine was adamant about leaving. Ignoring the guardís warnings, he crawled to the back of the container and hid behind a sheet he had hung there. Soon, he heard a truck grinding up to the warehouse door and felt the container being loaded for transport to the busy Algiers harbor.

A daylong wait at the port caused by a dockersí strike may have saved his life.

The next day, authorities decided to spray all containers against suspected bird flu. His lungs burning and eyes streaming, Branine was discovered by authorities when he started coughing. He said they held him overnight in a cell and confiscated his money before releasing him.

Still, he has not given up his goal of making the "big trip" and plans to try again.

The method? "Top secret," he said with a slight smile.

By AOMAR OUALI Associated Press Writer
Copyright: The Associated Press
Mon Jul 24, 11:08:19 AM EST