Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika pledged Sunday not to serve a full term if re-elected at April polls after huge protests against his bid to extend his 20 years in power.
The ailing leader vowed in an 11th-hour letter read out on state television to organize a “national conference” that would set a date for early polls which he would not contest.
The announcement came after hundreds of students staged new protests Sunday in the Algerian capital and other cities against a fifth term ahead of a midnight deadline for candidates to register for the 18 April vote.
The latest demonstrations came after tens of thousands of people took to streets of the capital Friday in the biggest challenge in years to Bouteflika’s rule.
The veteran leader uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since a 2013 stroke.
Chanting “Bouteflika go away”, the students rallied Sunday near the main city centre campus of the University of Algiers, cordoned off by police, AFP journalists said.
Hundreds more demonstrated at campuses across Algiers, including at the Faculty of Law near the headquarters of the Constitutional Council.
Police fired water cannon to prevent protesters from reaching the Council, where candidates must register for the presidential race, 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 82-year-old flew to Switzerland on February 24 for what his office described as “routine medical checks.”
The presidency has not detailed when he will return from the Geneva hospital, which was calm when AFP visited on Sunday.
– Protesters to be ‘disappointed’ –
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 removed on the eve of the election registration deadline and replaced by Transport Minister Abdelghani Zaalene.
Six other candidates have already registered, including prominent retired general Ali Ghediri, who was the first to announce he would run for president and promising change.
Businessman Rachid Nekkaz, who has cultivated a mass following among young people, said he would follow suit, but former premier Ali Benflis, a key contender in 2004 and 2014 polls, pulled out of this year’s race.
An editorial Sunday in El-Moudjahid newspaper, a mouthpiece of the government, said protesters would be “disappointed” in their campaign to force Bouteflika to pull out of the election.
The sacking of Sellal came after more than a week of demonstrations by Algerians, including lawyers and students, in Algiers, where protests have officially been banned since 2001, and other cities.
– 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 for two decades, gaining respect from many for his role in ending a civil war in the 1990s that officials say killed nearly 200,000 people.
Officials have warned that the protests risk dragging Algeria into instability, comparing the rallies to those that sparked Syria’s war.
Protesters have been mobilized by calls on social media which have resonated with young Algerians, many of whom 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.