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Algeria’s military chief Gaid Salah dies amid protest crisis

December 23, 2019 GMT
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FILE - In this Sunday, July 1, 2018 file picture Algeria's army chief Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah presides a military parade in Algiers. Algerian state media says the country's powerful military chief Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah has died. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul, File)
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FILE - In this Sunday, July 1, 2018 file picture Algeria's army chief Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah presides a military parade in Algiers. Algerian state media says the country's powerful military chief Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah has died. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul, File)

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algeria’s powerful military chief Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, who was instrumental in pushing out the gas-rich country’s long-serving president amid pro-democracy protests earlier this year, died unexpectedly Monday at age 79.

Gaid Salah’s death thrusts Algeria into new political uncertainty as a tumultuous year comes to a close. Algeria’s military plays a central role in decision-making in this country, a key ally to Western powers in fighting Islamic extremism.

Born Jan. 13, 1940, Gaid Salah was a product of the old guard that won Algeria’s independence from France in 1962 after a brutal seven-year war. He died Monday morning in the military hospital of Algiers after a heart attack, according to government statements.

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Gaid Salah was seen as the main power player in Algeria after protesters with his backing pushed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika out of office in April after 20 years in power.

The military chief then championed an unprecedented push against corruption — including by people in Bouteflika’s inner circle — and pushed for new presidential elections earlier this month.

The winner, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, was widely seen as close to the miltary chief, and the two were seen warmly embracing at Tebboune’s inauguration just four days ago. Gaid Salah had suffered heart problems in the past, according to Algerian media reports, but his death came a shock to most Algerians.

National radio scrapped regular programming to broadcast readings from the Quran and classical Arabic music, while state television aired extracts of Gaid Salah’s many speeches, one after the other.

The president declared three days of national mourning, while the army declared a week-long grieving period.

Gaid Salah is being replaced on a temporary basis by another high-ranking general, Said Chengriha, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry.

Gaid Salah also served as vice-minister of defense in the government, and gave the pro-democracy movement the final, determining assist that led to Bouteflika’s resignation.

However protesters later turned against Gaid Salah, demanding instead a wholesale makeover of Algeria’s political structure.

It was not immediately clear whether Gaid Salah’s death would make Tebboune’s job of reconciling the divided nation easier, or fuel the Hirak pro-democracy movement. Some activists from the peaceful movement continued to criticize Gaid Salah after his death, while other commentators praised him for ensuring that Algeria’s 10 months of political turmoil this year did not lead to violence.

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As the strongman in a power vacuum with an interim government considered illegitimate by protesters, he ceaselessly pressed for presidential elections, in speeches on frequent trips to army barracks around Africa’s biggest country.

He also was behind a massive corruption drive that included the arrest and conviction of Bouteflika’s brother Said, who was blamed for creating a rich and powerful circle of oligarchs. Once-feared intelligence chiefs were among those convicted.

Gaid Salah argued that his goal was to preserve “the revolution” from foreign hands he didn’t name but that he said were manipulating protesters.