, Algiers, Algeria, Mar 3 – Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika pledged Sunday not to serve a full term if re-elected at April polls after huge protests against the bid to extend his 20 years in power.
The ailing leader, who suffered a stroke in 2013, vowed in a letter read out on state television to organise a “national conference” that would set a date for early polls which he would not contest.
“I pledge not to be a candidate in that election which will ensure I am succeeded in undeniable conditions of serenity, freedom and transparency,” the letter read.
“I listened and heard the cry from the hearts of protesters and in particular the thousands of young people who questioned me about the future of our homeland”, it said.
Bouteflika’s bid to placate demonstrators came after tens of thousands of Algerians took to the streets against his bid for a fifth term in office in the biggest challenge to the authorities in years.
Just after the announcement his campaign director formally submitted his candidacy for the April 18 poll ahead of a midnight (2300 GMT) Sunday deadline.
Following that move a fresh demonstration erupted in central Algiers, and elsewhere in the country, with several hundred young people marching in the streets still opposed to Bouteflika’s candidacy.
Bouteflika remains in Switzerland where he has been for a week undergoing what the presidency describes as “routine medical tests”, but there was no legal requirement for him to submit his candidacy in person.
The veteran leader uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since his stroke.
– Students protest –
Hundreds of students staged new demonstrations against the president on Sunday in Algiers and other cities, two days after the tens of thousands of protesters thronged the country.
Chanting “Bouteflika go away”, the students rallied near the main city centre campus of the University of Algiers, which was cordoned off by police, AFP journalists said, while others demonstrated at other campuses.
Police fired water cannon to prevent protesters from reaching the Constitutional Council, where presidential bids were formally lodged, security sources said.
Rallies inside and outside campuses in the northeastern city of Annaba also drew hundreds chanting anti-Bouteflika slogans, a local journalist said on condition of anonymity.
The TSA news website reported other protests in Algeria’s second and third cities, Oran and Constantine.
Bouteflika’s announcement in February that he would seek another five-year term despite his failing health has unleashed pent-up frustrations in the North African country.
The presidency has not detailed when he will return from the Geneva hospital.
On Saturday, Bouteflika sacked his campaign manager Abdelmalek Sellal, a former premier who successfully oversaw the president’s past three re-election bids, state media said, without giving a reason.
Sellal was replaced by Transport Minister Abdelghani Zaalane.
Alongside Bouteflika, several other candidates have registered, including prominent retired general Ali Ghediri, who was the first to announce he would run and has promised change.
A Sunday editorial in El-Moudjahid newspaper, a government mouthpiece, said protesters would be “disappointed” in their campaign to force Bouteflika to pull out of the April election.
– Tear gas and stones –
On Friday, clashes erupted between police and protesters in Algiers as tens of thousands of people took to the streets.
Riot police used tear gas and batons to keep some protesters from marching on the Government Palace which houses the prime minister’s office.
According to a police toll, 56 police officers and seven demonstrators were hurt and 45 alleged stone-throwers were arrested in Algiers.
Bouteflika has been in power since 1999, initially gaining respect from many for his role in ending a civil war that officials say killed nearly 200,000 people.
Authorities have warned that the protests risk dragging Algeria into instability, comparing the rallies to those that sparked Syria’s ongoing war.
Protesters have been mobilised by calls on social media, as many young Algerians struggle to find jobs in a country where half the population is under 30.
In France, Algeria’s former colonial power, several thousand people on Sunday joined anti-Bouteflika rallies in Paris, Marseilles and other cities.
“Out out,” shouted crowds in the Place de la Republique, central Paris, where protesters waved placards and some wrapped themselves in Algerian flags.