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Algerian president back home amid mass protests against him

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Students shout slogans during a demonstration in Algiers on March 10, 2019 against ailing Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term. -
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Ryad Kramdi
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ALGIERS, Algeria — President Abdelaziz Bouteflika returned to Algeria on Sunday after two weeks in a Swiss hospital amid massive demonstrations demanding he withdraw his candidacy for a fifth term.

The 82-year-old Bouteflika suffered a stroke in 2013 and has rarely been seen in public since. The decision to run for a new term in the April 18 election angered large swathes of Algerian society.

The protests have also served as a reality check for a hard-to-read system that is an intrinsic part of the power structure. Protesters want to end that too.

A coterie of people have grown rich under Bouteflika and are thought to exert pressure on the presidency.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika during a swearing-in ceremony for a fourth term in Algiers April 28, 2014.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika during a swearing-in ceremony for a fourth term in Algiers April 28, 2014.Ramzi Boudina

Bouteflika arrived at Boufarik military airport, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of the capital, and was shown in video by private television station Ennahar in a fast-moving convoy heading toward the Algiers suburb of Zeralda. He could be seen inside a car slightly bent over and with a cap on his head.

Bouteflika resides in Zeralda, not in the presidential palace in the capital. Earlier, Bouteflika had departed from a Geneva airport.

The official APS news agency confirmed that the president had returned home "after a private visit to Geneva ... during which he underwent periodic medical tests."

The power structure has been shaken by the size of the unprecedented citizens' revolt, which has drawn millions into the streets of cities across the country to say no to a fifth term — and to a system blamed for corruption and keeping Bouteflika in office despite ailments.

A general strike Sunday was taking place as the president arrived, with numerous shops in Algiers and other cities closed.

Protesters gather in Montreal, on March 10, 2019, to demonstrate against Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Protesters gather in Montreal, on March 10, 2019, to demonstrate against Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.Martin Ouellet-Diotte

As if to lay the groundwork for change, the top Algerian party backing the beleaguered chief of state broke its silence Sunday over massive demonstrations demanding the end of the regime, saying it's ready to work with all parties to end the crisis.

The National Liberation Front, or FLN, said in a statement that it wants to find a way out of the crisis "with the least cost to the country."

Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah added his voice, saying Sunday that the army and the people "have the same vision of the future."

Thousands of protesters in the Algerian diaspora protested Sunday in Paris and other French cities. Protests also were held in neighboring Rabat, Morocco.

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The protests trickled down to middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, with several hundred marching in the center of Algiers, also calling for Bouteflika to withdraw his bid for a fifth mandate.

"Since I was born, the only (president) I've known is Bouteflika," said a young protesting girl Amina, asking not to give her full name.

"These kids don't have any political calculations," said a mother on the sidelines of the protest, Karim Ziad. "They're just 13-year-old kids."

Protesters wave Algerian and Berber flags during a rally in support of the ongoing protests in Algeria against the president\'s bid for a fifth term in power, at Place de la Republique in Paris, on March 10, 2019.
Protesters wave Algerian and Berber flags during a rally in support of the ongoing protests in Algeria against the president\'s bid for a fifth term in power, at Place de la Republique in Paris, on March 10, 2019.Bertrand Guay

Peaceful nationwide protests began Feb. 22 to protest Bouteflika's plan to run for a fifth term in April 18 elections. The protest movement also wants a change in the much-decried system that has kept him there and has a stranglehold on the power structure.

Bouteflika, first elected in 1999, is the first civilian president of the North African nation except for a short term by Ahmed Ben Bella after Algeria won its independence from France in 1962. He was deposed in a bloodless military coup in 1965 that set the stage for a series of generals serving as presidents.

In a third week of protests on Friday, hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of Algiers calling for change in the biggest demonstration yet against Bouteflika. Similar marches were held across the country.

The government plane, which had been hidden away from view in a hangar, taxied onto the runway at Geneva airport as a rainbow came into view.

Algerian officials had said days ago that Bouteflika was expected to return shortly.

Lotfi Bouchouchi in Algiers, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, and Elaine Ganley in Paris, contributed to this report.