Algeria buries army chief Gaid Salah

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Thousands of Algerians gathered along the funeral procession's route to pay their respects to Ahmed Gaid Salah, who was army chief for a record 15 years

Thousands of Algerians gathered along the funeral procession's route to pay their respects to Ahmed Gaid Salah, who was army chief for a record 15 years (AFP Photo/-)

Algiers (AFP) - Algeria on Wednesday buried army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, who had been the country's de facto strongman in recent months and guardian of the ruling system challenged by a massive protest movement.

The veteran head of the armed forces died suddenly of a heart attack on Monday aged 79, days after overseeing the installation of a replacement for former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who resigned under pressure from huge street protests in April.

The military high command wields low-key but major influence in a ruling system in place since Algeria's 1962 independence from France, and Gaid Salah's death threatens to deepen the country's political crisis at the end of a turbulent year.

His funeral was worthy of a national leader and came days after newly sworn-in President Abdelmadjid Tebboune presented him with the National Order of Merit, an award usually reserved for heads of state.

Tebboune had announced three days of national mourning but protesters defied that on Tuesday, hitting the streets with the same mass protests that have rocked the country since February.

The new president, along with senior political and military officials, held a ceremony Wednesday at the People's Palace in central Algiers to pay their respects to Gaid Salah, who served a record 15 years as military chief of staff.

Military officers carried the coffin, draped in an Algerian flag, to the 18th century Ottoman building where it was received by the deceased general's interim successor Said Chengriha.

- Thousands pay tribute -

Gaid Salah's body lay in state for four hours as dignitaries and small groups of civilians entered the palace complex to pay their respects.

The funeral procession then set off on the 10-kilometre (six-mile) journey to the capital's Al-Alia cemetary, state TV showed.

While only a few civilians entered the complex, thousands of people thronged outside the palace, along the procession route and at the gates of the cemetery, in numbers rarely seen for an official funeral.

The coffin was then placed on a gun carriage, pulled by an armoured personnel carrier to cries of "Allahu akbar" (God is Greatest) and ululations from the crowd.

The convoy was led through vast crowds by officers in ceremonial uniforms on the back of a lorry, flanked by police motorcycle outriders.

While many paid tribute to Gaid Salah on Wednesday, he had been met with fierce criticism by the protest movement.

The mass demonstrations were sparked by veteran president Bouteflika's February announcement that he would seek a fifth term in office.

Despite his departure in April, protesters have pressed on ever since, demanding an overhaul of the ruling system and the departure of establishment figures -- including Gaid Salah.

The general had been instrumental in pushing through a December 12 election for Bouteflika's successor, despite massive pushback from protesters who wanted to see deep-rooted reforms before any poll.

But crowd at the palace on Wednesday morning chanted a modified version of a protest slogan that called Gaid Salah a traitor, instead crying: "Army and people are brothers and Gaid Salah is a martyr!"

His wooden coffin was lowered into the ground at Al-Alia cemetery, where former presidents and other prominent Algerian figures are laid to rest, to a rendition of "The Last Post" and a gun salute, as senior political and military officials stood by.

The ceremony was broadcast live on state TV, with an image of Gaid Salah in a corner of the screen bearing the words "Farewell Lion of Algeria".

In a eulogy at the graveside, defence ministry communications chief General Boualem Madi hailed Gaid Salah as "a hero" of Algeria.

"Not a drop of blood was shed and he steered Algeria back to safe harbour," he said, referring to the army's handling of the protest movement and of recent elections.

"God preserved his life until his mission was accomplished."