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Algerians keep up pressure on Bouteflika with more mass protests

Ryad Kramdi, AFP | Algerians demonstrate in central Algiers on March 15 during the first Friday rally since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's surprise announcement that he will not seek re-election.

Huge crowds gathered Friday in Algeria's capital and other cities amid heavy security for a new wave of demonstrations that could be decisive for the protest movement calling on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down.

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Wearing Algerian flags on their backs and chanting "Bouteflika, Get Out," protesters converged on three public plazas in Algiers that have become focal points for a month-long public uprising against the country's shadowy leadership.

The protests – the first Friday rallies since Bouteflika's surprise announcement that he will not seek re-election – were seen as a key test of whether the ailing president's manoeuvre has dampened anger on the streets.

"You pretend to understand us, we will pretend to listen to you," read a banner held aloft by the mostly young demonstrators on Algiers' landmark Grande Poste square.

"Those who think we are tired are wrong. Our protests will not stop," said doctor Madjid Benzida, 37, as police blocked streets leading to government offices and parliament.

Riot police vans lined side streets of Algiers and surveillance helicopters circled overhead, but the atmosphere on the ground was festive and relaxed.

National conference

Hundreds of thousands of people have staged protests on successive Fridays demanding a new era with younger leaders who can offer greater social freedoms and a healthier economy.

Bouteflika’s decision on Monday to drop his bid for a fifth term initially sparked joy among protesters, but his move to cancel the planned April 18 vote prompted accusations of "tricks" and sparked a new round of demonstrations.

>> Read more: Algerians ‘sceptical’ as Bouteflika abandons bid for fifth term

The 82-year-old leader has promised a "national conference" to carry out reforms and set a date for new elections "before the end of 2019", suggesting he may stay in office for another year.

But Algerians quickly rejected his offer and demanded that the 82-year-old president hand over power to a young generation of leaders who can create jobs and stamp out corruption.

Earlier this week, teachers and students marched in large numbers to keep up the pressure, demanding that Bouteflika step down at once.

On Thursday, an icon of the country's war of independence from France, Djamila Bouhired, warned Algerians to be wary of having their victory stolen.

"Your elders liberated Algeria from colonial domination, and you are giving back to Algerians their liberties and their pride despoiled since independence," the former militant said in a statement.

‘France, stop the interference’

The protest movement has been led by students, in a country where half the population is under the age of 30 and youth unemployment has spurred anger against a government seen as out of touch.

Several demonstrators on Friday said they had travelled from the Kabylie area, 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Algiers, and spent the previous night with friends in the capital to avoid roadblocks or bus stoppages.

As at previous rallies after the weekly prayers, Algeria's ubiquitous red-white-green flag fluttered from windows and balconies of buildings leading to the city centre.

Many demonstrators, with their banners, criticised France's stance on the political crisis in Algeria, accusing the former colonial power of siding with Bouteflika.

"France, 132 years is enough, stop the interference," read one banner, referring to the era of French rule before independence. "Macron, you are too small for today's Algeria," added another.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday welcomed Bouteflika's announcement but urged Algerian authorities to organise a "reasonable" transition from his rule.

'Heard the message'

Speaking ahead of Friday’s rallies, the newly appointed prime minister, Noureddine Bedoui, said the authorities had “heard the message of the Algerian youth”.

People "must show calm and act peacefully", Bedoui said, calling for "dialogue" to resolve a “sensitive” situation.

Promising to unveil a new government by next week, Bedoui vowed to create an administration of technocrats, including young men and women.

‘Too little, too late,’ FRANCE 24's Meriem Amellal says of Algerian PM

But in a fresh blow to Bouteflika, a senior member of the FLN ruling party, former party spokesman Hocine Kheldoun, became the latest official to turn his back on the veteran president on Friday, describing him as “history now”.

In an interview with Ennahar television, Kheldoun said the party had to look ahead and support the aims of demonstrators protesting against Bouteflika.

The FLN, which was born out of Algeria’s independence struggle, holds the majority in all elected assemblies, including parliament and local city councils.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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