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Friday, September 11, 1998 Published at 23:05 GMT 00:05 UK

World: Middle East

Algeria president springs suprise

Liamine Zeroual - has been in poor health

Algerian President Liamine Zeroual has announced early presidential elections before the end of February 1999.

BBC's Heba Saleh: The decision is a "total surprise"
In a televised address, President Zeroual said he would not be standing in the election, but would continue in office until a successor was elected.

In the 40-minute speech, a review of his presidency, Mr Zeroual said his decision was based on his wish to "give the opposition concrete reality."

He said he would open discussions "immediately" with the various political parties.

Tensions within the army

The BBC North Africa correspondent, Heba Saleh, says his move may reflect long-standing in-fighting within the Algerian army top brass, the real holders of power.

In the last few weeks tensions have came to the fore with a sustained press campaign against one of the closest advisers of the president, General Mohamed Betchine.

Analysts believe the newspapers would not have dared attack such a powerful man unless they had a green light from equally powerful cliques in the army

The attacks were seen as an attempt to undermine the president himself.

Conflict has killed thousands

Our correspondent says it is believed that one of the causes of the divisions is failure to agree on the means of ending the long-running conflict with the Islamist opposition which has so far resulted in the death of almost 80,000 people.

Mr Zeroual, 57, a retired general, was elected for a five-year mandate in November 1995 with more than 60% of the vote in the country's first multi-party presidential poll since Algeria became independent in 1962.

The Islamic Salvation Front, which was poised to win parliamentary elections annulled by the military in 1992, did not take part.

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