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Algeria's president appoints caretaker government amid turmoil

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Algeria's president appoints caretaker government amid turmoil
Protestors of the Algerian community of Paris attend a demonstration against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, March 31, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau   -   Copyright  CHARLES PLATIAU(Reuters)
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By Lamine Chikhi and Hamid Ould Ahmed

ALGIERS (Reuters) – Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika named a caretaker cabinet on Sunday, as he grapples with a political crisis following weeks of protests demanding he end his 20-year rule.

Serving Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui will head the administration, state news agency APS said, listing 27 ministers.

Central bank governor Mohamed Loukal was named as finance minister, while the former head of the state power and gas utility, Mohamed Arkab, will be energy minister, APS said.

Sabri Boukadoum, a former envoy to the United Nations, becomes foreign minister and replaces Ramtane Lamamra, who spent less than a month in the role.

Seeking to defuse the demonstrations, Bouteflika had said on March 11 he was dropping plans for a fifth term. But he stopped short of stepping down immediately, to wait for a national conference on political change. That further enraged protesters.

Algeria’s army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah, renewed a call on Saturday for the Constitutional Council to rule on whether the ailing 82-year-old Bouteflika was fit to rule, opening up the possibility of a managed exit.

Salah kept his position as deputy defence minister in the reshuffle, according to state media. Bouteflika, who has rarely appeared in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, kept his title as defence minister.

Bouteflika also named the communication minister, Hassane Rabhi, as government spokesman, a rarely-filled post in what critics say has been a secretive administration.

Demonstrators have rejected military intervention in civilian matters and want to dismantle the entire ruling elite, which includes veterans from the war of independence against France, army officers, the ruling party and business tycoons.

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Algiers for more than a month, complaining of corruption, nepotism and economic mismanagement which they say has tarnished Bouteflika’s 20-year rule.

But two opposition leaders have supported the army initiative.

“The merit of this approach is that it responds to a pressing popular demand,” Ali Benflis, a former head of the ruling FLN party, said in a party statement. “We are facing a political, constitutional and institutional crisis.”

Abderazak Makri, head of an Islamist party, said he was against anything that threatened the stability and unity of the country or undermined the military.

Several close allies, including some members of the ruling FLN and union leaders, have abandoned Bouteflika.

Political sources said the appointment of a caretaker government might be a signal that Bouteflika could resign, given pressure from the military and protesters.

The U.N. Secretary-General said on Sunday he welcomed efforts towards a peaceful and democratic transition in Algeria.

Addressing an Arab League summit in Tunis, Antonio Guterres said any steps should be made in a way “that addresses the concerns of the Algerian people in a timely way”.

(Writing by Michael Georgy and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Susan Fenton, Edmund Blair and Daniel Wallis)

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