Thursday, November 16, 2006

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika Admits Being 'Very Ill' But Now Feeling Much Better

20:54 MECCA TIME, 17:54 GMT

Algeria president feeling better

Bouteflika smiled for the cameras but had no reassuring words for French Interior Minister Sarkozy

The Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has admitted that he had been "very ill" but said that he was now much better in a move to end a debate at home and abroad about his health.

However, Bouteflika refused to offer words of reconciliation to France, providing a terse end to a visit by the French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The subject of Bouteflika's health is rarely broached publicly by Algerian officials although it has been widely discussed by ordinary Algerians since he visited France for medical treatment late last year and again this year.

Senior Algerian politicians have told local media recently that Bouteflika has been well.

Analysts say the health of the 69-year-old president, who has sought to bring peace to the giant oil-exporting country of 33 million since taking office in 1999, is a critical factor in the political stability of Africa's second-largest country.

No more questions

Answering a question after his meeting with Sarkozy, he said: "It's true that I was very ill, but today I am much better."

He then told reporters to "stop asking questions about my health".

The subject of France was dealt with in a similarly frank manner.

Bouteflika met Sarkozy for a four-and-a-half-hour meeting, but made little effort to patch up differences with Algeria's former colonial ruler.

"It's fully clear that we [France and Algeria] are condemned to having a common future. We can do nothing about the laws of geography," which place France and Algeria on opposite sides of the Mediterranean, he said.

French interest

Asked whether he could offer a word that could bring Algeria and France closer, Bouteflika said: "In these circumstances, I cannot say anything."

Sarkozy's two-day trip to Algeria had been encouraged by the French president, Jacques Chirac, and was billed as a chance to get bilateral ties back on track.

For Sarkozy,who is aiming to be the centre-right's candidate for next year's presidnetial election, the visit was steeped in political importance because roughly three million people of Algerian descent live in France.

On Monday, Sarkozy announced that the so-called Schengen zone nations of Europe will no longer consult one another before issuing visas to Algerians.

The move is expected to reduce the waiting time for Algerians seeking visas from about 15 days to between one and three days.

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