Ailing 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for fifth term in office has sparked widespread demonstrations.
Amid the biggest threat to his 20-year rule, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika arrived at an airbase southwest of the capital, Algiers, according to state media.
His aircraft on Sunday flew into the Boufarik military airport from the Swiss city of Geneva, where the 82-year-old leader – whose bid to seek a fifth term has been met with unprecedented protests – had a two-week medical trip, Ennahar television said.
State TV carried a statement from the presidency saying he had returned to Algeria after routine medical checks. Images later showed a convoy departing the airport.
The president, who is confined to a wheelchair, has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, prompting critics to question whether he is being used as a puppet candidate by a faction of civilian and military figures.
Massive protests began on February 22 to denounce Bouteflika’s plans to extend his rule in the April 18 polls.
Bouteflika has offered to limit his term after the election and has vowed to change the “system” that runs the country. The promises, however, have failed to quell public anger, galvanising discontent among different sectors, particularly students and other young people.
Some long-time allies of Bouteflika, including members of the ruling FLN party, have expressed support for the protesters, revealing cracks within a ruling elite long seen as invincible.
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 Gaid Salah did not mention the unrest.
“Bouteflika’s system is over,” said a commentator on Ennahar, which is close to the president’s inner circle.
Students have been at the heart of the protests and more rallies took place on Sunday in Algiers, where thousands of flag-waving supporters poured onto the streets shouting slogans such as: “Bouteflika, there will be no fifth term.”
Many shops in the capital were shut 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 told Reuters news agency in front of the Central Postal Office.
“We want Bouteflika and all his mafia to leave. They have to leave this country,” added Salim, a high school student among thousands of people demonstrating on Sunday.
A general strike has hit the country’s Mediterranean oil ports of Skikda and Bejaia but exports were not affected, according to port staff.
The government, meanwhile, has brought forward a scheduled university holiday by two weeks – in an apparent attempt to defuse student-led rallies against Bouteflika.
The ministry of higher education’s decision on Saturday came a day after tens of thousands of demonstrators packed the centre of Algiers.
Without giving a reason for the move, the ministry said in a decree the spring break would be brought forward by 10 days to run from Sunday to April 4.
Teachers and students at several universities have gone on strike, while others had vowed to begin striking on Sunday.
While rallies in Algiers and elsewhere were mostly calm, police reportedly used tear gas in several areas of the capital, including to block the road to the presidential palace.
State media also said security forces arrested 195 protesters, citing offences including looting.
Bouteflika has been in Geneva, Switzerland, for the past two weeks for what his office called “routine medical tests”.
On Thursday, he issued his first warning to protesters, saying the movement – now entering its third week – could create chaos in the oil and natural gas-producing North African country.
“This time, it’s quite different. What we see now is a momentum that is building up across Algeria,” Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, who has covered the region extensively, said of the ongoing demonstrations.
“Many people believe if this momentum continues for the next two weeks, it could be a game changer,” Ahelbarra added.
Looking ahead, Ahelbarra said a key date for the country was going to be March 13, when Algeria’s constitutional committee is set to determine the legitimacy of the presented candidacies for next month’s elections.