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Last Updated:  Monday, 3 March, 2003, 08:06 GMT
Chirac given rapturous reception
Chirac (l) greets the crowd in Algeria
Algerians threw confetti and cheered the French president

French President Jacques Chirac has received a rapturous welcome from hundreds of thousands of Algerians at the start of the first official state visit by a French leader since the country's independence in 1962.

French security officials put the crowd figures at around 500,000, but Algerian security sources said about 1.5 million turned out on Sunday, French news agency AFP reported.

They cheered as President Chirac drove from the city airport to the centre of town in an open-top limousine with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

To catch a glimpse of the French leader, many went to great lengths, hanging off lampposts and trees or packing apartment balconies.

Ships in the city harbour also blasted their horns, women sang in the streets and people threw confetti at the French president, while others chanted "Visas, visas" in reference to hopes that more Algerians would be permitted to work in France.

President Chirac - who served as a second lieutenant in the French army during the independence campaign - is spending three days in the country, along with a delegation of leading business people, including the heads of corporate giants TotalFinaElf, Alstom and Airbus, as well as French cultural figures.

On Monday, President Chirac addresses parliament.

On Sunday, France and Algeria signed a declaration on increased cooperation. The treaty calls for a strong and unique partnership between the countries, with annual meetings between their heads of state, and increased economic and cultural ties.

However, the main impact of the visit is symbolic.

Difficult ties

In a gesture of friendship, President Chirac presented his Algerian counterpart with the silver seal of the last ruler of Algiers, taken by French forces in 1830.

"The return of this symbol of the sovereignty of the Algerian state in my mind seals the reunion between our two countries and our peoples, a new advance in our relations," President Chirac said.

The two countries have endured difficult relations since Algeria forced its French rulers out, ending more than a century of control by Paris.
Mourners for victims of massacre in Tipaza
Many thousands have died in massacres

In an act underlying the two countries' reconciliation, President Chirac will lay a wreath for Algerians who died fighting for independence from France.

The trip marks a break for President Chirac away from his current role as one of the principal global opponents of US-led moves towards military action against Iraq.

He will also discuss Algeria's home-grown Islamic militant movement, which has been a source of terrorist activities in Europe and North America.

Since 1992, Islamic militants have been trying to topple the Algerian Government and set up an Islamic state.

The 'disappeared'

They have massacred soldiers and civilians, while government forces have also been accused of widespread human rights abuses. About 120,000 people have died in the conflict.

Rights groups are calling for President Chirac to raise the subject of thousands of Algerians who "disappeared" at the hands of Algerian security forces in the 1990s, when the insurgency was at its bloodiest.

President Chirac and previous French presidents have been to Algeria since independence, but none of the trips has been an official state visit, with all the pomp this entails.

Despite their sometimes difficult relations, Algeria and France have very close links.

About two million people of Algerian origin live in France, which has declared 2003 the "Year of Algeria" with a series of concerts and exhibitions about North African culture.

The BBC's David Chazan
"The French President wants a new start to French-Algerian relations"

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