Algerian state media says the country’s powerful army chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah has died, at a time of bitter political divisions over the military's dominant role in the major energy exporter.
Algerian government radio says he died Monday morning in the military hospital of Algiers after a heart attack. Algerian media reports said Gaid Salah was 79 years old.
Salah was seen as the main power broker in Algeria, especially since a pro-democracy movement with his backing pushed out the country's longtime former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April.
His death comes less than a week after Abdelmadjid Tebboune was sworn in as the country’s new president, on December 19. Gaid Salah was present at Tebboune’s inauguration and was considered to be close to the leader. Tebboune declared an exceptional full week of mourning, in an indication of Gaid Salah's importance.
Africa's largest country has been riven by mass protests since February demanding a wholesale change in the ruling elite, including that the army step back from politics.
News of Salah's death, however, may not signify major changes to Algeria's economic and political policies, as the country’s strongman had plenty of potential successors in an armed forces that has remained united over the handling of the protests.
The authorities have so far rejected any systematic attempt to crush the protests with violence, allowing them to continue each week but stepping up the police presence in recent months and detaining many demonstrators.
"He kept his promise to save the blood of Algerians during a tough period," Islam Benatia, a prominent figure in the protest movement, said on Facebook.
The army's central role in Algerian politics was underlined last week when Tebboune's first act after being sworn in was to embrace Gaid Salah and present him with an order of merit.
As chief of Algeria's military for a record 15 years and a veteran of Algeria's war for independence, the general was seen as the guardian of the military-dominated system that has been in power since.
The strongman had supported Bouteflika for years until the president's February announcement that he would run for re-election sparked unprecedented demonstrations.
In early April, Gaid Salah called on his boss to resign. Bouteflika quit the same day, leaving the armed forces chief effectively in charge of the North African country.
The army then backed a series of arrests of Bouteflika allies and senior businessmen in an anti-corruption campaign that was widely seen as a purge of the military's rivals within the ruling system. But it was not enough to appease the protesters, many of whom had begun calling for Gaed Salah's resignation. One constant chant throughout the protests has been for "A civilian state, not a military state".
Salah defied protesters by pressing on with a presidential vote on December 12. Demonstrators opposed the vote and official figures showed only 40 percent of the electorate cast ballots.
The army chief had categorially rejected the youth-led protest movement's key demands: deep reforms, the establishment of transitional institutions and the dismantling of the military-dominated regime.
President Tebboune announced that the head of land forces, General Said Chengriha, would take over as acting chief of staff of the armed forces.
Gaid Salah's funeral will take place on Tuesday, a day on which students have been staging weekly protests for much of the year.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP and AP)