March 19, 2019 / 8:40 AM / 2 months ago

Algeria protest leaders tell army to stay out of politics

* Protest leaders emerge from weeks of unrest

* Bold call on military not to intervene

* “Platform of Change”

By Lamine Chikhi

ALGIERS, March 19 (Reuters) - A new group headed by political leaders, opposition figures and activists called on Algeria’s powerful generals to stay out of politics as it pressed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the government to quit.

In the first direct message to the army from leaders emerging from mass protests against Bouteflika, the National Coordination for Change said the military should “play its constitutional role without interfering in the people choice”.

Generals have traditionally wielded power from behind the scenes in Algeria but have stepped in during pivotal moments.

In 1992, the army cancelled elections an Islamist party was set to win, triggering a long civil war that killed an estimated 200,000 people. Soldiers have stayed in their barracks throughout the recent unrest.

In a statement titled “Platform of Change” and issued late on Monday, the organisation demanded the Bouteflika should step down before the end of his term on April 28 and the government resign immediately.

Algerian authorities have always been adept at manipulating a weak and disorganised opposition.

But more than three weeks of demonstrations - which peaked on Friday with hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Algiers - have emboldened well-known figures to lead the drive for reforms in the North African country.

Prominent members of the new group include lawyer and activist Mustapha Bouchachi, opposition leader Karim Tabou and former treasury minister Ali Benouari, as well as Mourad Dhina and Kamel Guemazi, who belong to an outlawed Islamist party.

Zoubida Assoul, leader of a small political party, is the only woman in the group so far.

Bouteflika, rarely seen in public since a stroke in 2013, has failed to ease anger on the streets by reversing a decision to seek a fifth term, postponing an election and planning a conference that will chart a new political future.

But he stopped short of stepping down, and effectively prolonged his fourth term.

“Bouteflika just trampled on the constitution after he decided to extend his fourth term,” said the National Coordination for Change. (Writing by Michael Georgy Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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