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Hundreds of thousands of Algerians protest against Bouteflika’s fifth term bid

Ryad Kramdi, AFP | The protests were swelled by Algerian women turning out in large numbers to mark International Women's Day.

Hundreds of thousands protested across Algeria on Friday in the biggest rallies yet against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term in office, a day after the 82-year-old leader warned against the risk of "chaos".

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A march in the capital Algiers was slowed to a near-crawl by the huge numbers taking part, swelled by women marking International Women's Day and chanting "No fifth term -- hey, Bouteflika!"

Waving Algeria's green-white-and-red flags, men and women converged on the city's landmark Grand Post Office square after weekly prayers.

"The people are here, from all social classes, from the youngest to the eldest, everyone is saying 'no to a fifth term, please, leave, you won't even be judged'," said Kamel, a 37-year-old protester in the capital.

The police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protesters who tried to force their way through a police cordon that was blocking access to a road leading towards the presidency, an AFP journalist said.

While demonstrators dispersed calmly as darkness fell, small groups of young people clashed with the police.

The unrest left 112 members of the security forces injured, according to police, who said they had arrested 195 people suspected of "vandalism".

The overall atmosphere was calm and festive, and numerous people attended with their children.

In the late afternoon in central Algiers the massive crowd protested in the absence of police, who melted away from the area.

Dozens of police vehicles that had been deployed in the morning at the Grand Post Office square were withdrawn, after being swamped by crowds.

Huge crowds - far surpassing those seen the previous Friday - also protested in the second and third cities of Oran and Constantine, local journalists on the ground told AFP.

A journalist in Oran said the whole city "is out (on the streets)... this has never been seen before".

Major demonstrations were reported in other cities across the country by security sources, Algerian media and social networks.

On Thursday, Bouteflika issued his first warning to protesters, saying the unrest could destablise the country.

"Many of our fellow citizens" have demonstrated across the North African country "to peacefully express their views", he said.

"However, we must call for vigilance and caution in case this peaceful expression is infiltrated by some insidious party... which could cause chaos," he said, without mention of the demands that he abandon his bid to seek re-election on April 18.

Algeria's army chief, who is close to Bouteflika and considered one of the country's most powerful figures, has said the army will "will remain the guarantor" of security.

General Ahmed Gaid Salah also said in a speech at a military academy outside Algiers that the country's success "in eradicating terrorism... has displeased some parties who are upset to see Algeria stable and safe.

Bouteflika in Switzerland

Bouteflika has promised that if he wins the April election, he will organise a "national conference" to set a date for further polls which he would not contest.

His pledge, made in a letter read out on state television, has been dismissed as an insult by Algerians weary of his two-decade-old rule and a stagnating economy.

'The moderates in the army will be frightened by the scale of the protests'

Bouteflika is widely credited with helping to end the crippling civil war – which pitted the army against Islamist insurgents – that killed some 200,000 people in the 1990s. But the leader has been largely out of sight since he suffered a stroke in 2013 that confined him to a wheelchair and severely impaired his speech.

Bouteflika has been in Switzerland since February 24 for what the presidency has described as "routine medical tests".

Swiss police said Rachid Nekkaz - a businessman and political activist opposed to Bouteflika - was arrested on Friday outside the Geneva hospital where the president is being treated.

He will be held overnight and appear before a prosecutor on Saturday, police spokesman Jean-Philippe Brandt told AFP.

Nekkaz fell foul of Algerian electoral laws because he has previously held French nationality and stood aside for a cousin of the same name to run on his behalf.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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