ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika returned home on Sunday after spending two weeks in a Swiss hospital, state television said, while protesters have massed at home in the biggest threat to his 20-year rule.
An Algerian government plane transporting the president arrived at Boufarik military airport just southwest of the capital. Top Algerian officials often use that airport.
Tens of thousands of Algerians of all social classes have been demonstrating against Bouteflika’s decision to stand in April’s election, rejecting a stagnant political system dominated by veterans of the independence war against France which ended in 1962.
In the clearest indication yet that the generals sympathise with protesters, the chief of staff said the military and the people had a united vision of the future, state TV reported. Lieutenant General Gaed Salah did not mention the unrest.
Bouteflika’s ruling FLN party urged all sides to work together to end the crisis and promote national reconciliation, Ennahar TV said.
But there are no signs Algerians are prepared to heed that call after rejecting Bouteflika’s offer to limit his term after the election.
Cracks are appearing in what has been described as “the fortress” around the ruling elite, with a growing number of Bouteflika’s allies, including members of his ruling FLN party, joining rallies urging him to step down.
“Bouteflika’s system is over,” said a commentator on Ennahar TV, which is close to the president’s inner circle.
The channel showed footage of what it said was a convoy of vehicles transporting the president. State TV carried a statement from the presidency saying he had returned to Algeria after undergoing routine medical checks in Geneva.
In the latest protests, thousands took to the streets of the capital carrying the Algerian flag and chanting: “Bouteflika, there will be no fifth term”. Many shops in Algiers were closed and residents said train services had been suspended.
“We have taken to the streets today to protest a fifth presidential term. We are against a fifth term. This is enough,” protester Zakaria said in front of the Central Postal Office.
Young Algerians are desperate for jobs and angry about unemployment, corruption and an elderly elite in the North African country, a major oil and gas producer.
“The current system is unable to provide jobs,” said Farid Kahil, 27, who is unemployed.
A general strike has hit the country’s Mediterranean oil ports of Skikda and Bejaia but exports were not affected, according to port staff.
Bouteflika managed to remain in power as the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising toppled autocrats in neighbouring countries mainly because Algeria had enough foreign reserves to boost state spending.
Older Algerians haunted by the civil war in the 1990s tolerated crackdowns on dissent in exchange for stability, giving the government some breathing space. Now some have appeared at demonstrations to demand reforms.
“We need a new generation to govern us and secure a better future for our children,” said pensioner Ahmed, 63.
Even if Bouteflika’s position becomes untenable, it is not clear who could replace him.
For years, rumours have swirled about potential successors, but no one credible has emerged who has the backing of the army and elite and is not in their 70s or 80s.
“We want Bouteflika and all his mafia to leave. They have to leave this country,” said Salim, a high school student.
Additional reporting by Abdelaziz Boumzar in Algiers, Tom Miles, Marina Depetris and Denis Balibouse in Geneva and Julia Payne in London; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Jane Merriman