Thousands of Algerian students marched on Tuesday in protest at ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s determination to stand for re-election, brushing aside his pledge not to serve a full fifth term.
The country’s army chief meanwhile delivered a speech slamming unnamed parties he said want to return to the “painful years” of Algeria’s civil war, and pledged to guarantee the country’s “security and stability”.
Bouteflika suffered a stroke in 2013 and is rarely seen in public.
Rallies demanding the 82-year-old resign have rocked Algeria since February 22, with protesters mobilised by calls on social media, in a country where half the population is under 30 and many young people struggle to find jobs.
Following mass demonstrations, Bouteflika promised Sunday that if he wins the April poll he will organise a “national conference” to set a date for further elections which he would not contest.
But Algerians weary of his two-decade rule angrily dismissed his promise, read out on state television, as an insult.
On Tuesday thousands of university students from campuses across Algiers marched in the capital, many carrying their country’s flag.
Abderahman, a 21-year-old student, said Bouteflika “wants an extra year” in power.
“We don’t want him to stay even an extra second. He should leave now,” he said.
Police deployed across the centre of the capital where protests have been banned since 2001.
“Hey Bouteflika, there won’t be a fifth term,” the students chanted.
Onlookers applauded them and motorists honked their horns in a show of support.
Thousands of students also rallied in the centre of Algeria’s second city Oran, an AFP reporter said.
Local journalists in the cities of Constantine and Annaba said thousands more students had also joined protests, while Algerian media reported demonstrations in other cities.
In a sign they would not back down, students in Algiers chanted “bring on the army commandos and the BRI (police rapid response squad)”.
– Army chief warns protesters –
General Ahmed Gaid Salah said on Tuesday that the army would continue to guarantee Algeria’s “security and stability” and slammed those he said want to return to the “painful years” of the 1992-2002 civil war.
Speaking at a military academy outside Algiers, the armed forces chief of staff urged Algerians to be ready to “erect a rampart against anything that could expose Algeria to unpredictable threats”.
The European Commission has stressed the importance of freedom of expression and rule of law, following days of protests which have seen tens of thousands of people take to the streets.
“The right to freedom of expression and assembly are written in the Algerian constitution,” said commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic.
“We expect that these rights can be exercised in a peaceful way and guaranteed in respect for the rule of law,” she told journalists.
Bouteflika formally submitted his candidacy for the April 18 poll just before a midnight deadline on Sunday.
It was handed in by his campaign manager Abdelghani Zaalane as the president has been in Switzerland since February 24 for what the presidency has described as “routine medical tests”.
In Sunday’s message he said his pledge not to serve a full term if re-elected “will ensure I am succeeded in undeniable conditions of serenity, freedom and transparency.”
He acknowledged the mostly peaceful protests against him.
“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.”
But his words have failed to end the demonstrations against him which have continued daily, drawing Algerians from all walks of life, including students, lawyers and journalists.
– ‘No means no!’ –
Tuesday’s rallies came in response to calls on social media for students to gather outside the iconic building housing Algiers’ main post office.
“No means no! Hasn’t he understood the message of the people?” asked mathematics student Selma.
A sign held up by demonstrators read: “No studies, no teaching until the system (regime) falls”, as students were reportedly considering going on strike.
The sprawling Bab Ezzouar campus of the University of Algiers, just outside the capital, was deserted.
“There is a massive strike by students… I’ve never seen anything like it since the 1980 Berber Spring,” a professor told AFP.
She was referring to a weeks-long uprising demanding cultural rights for Algeria’s Berber community, who long fought for greater recognition for their customs and ancient language overshadowed by Arabic culture.