New Algerian PM leaves government unchanged

By Hassane Meftahi

Algiers - New Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem appointed his government on Thursday, leaving it almost unchanged, but said that revising the constitution to give more power to the president would be more of a priority than it was for his predecessor.

Belkhadem, a close ally of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, appointed a minister of communications, giving the post vacant for a year to El Hachemi Djiar, a counsellor of Bouteflika. No other changes were made.

Belkhadem replaced outgoing prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia, who resigned on Wednesday after three years in office.

After being officially sworn in, Belkhadem, 60, said that revising the constitution would be a priority, along with raising salaries of workers, who have failed to benefit from the extra funds this gas-rich North African nation has gained with the rise in oil prices.

The resignation of Ouyahia followed heated rivalry between himself and Belkhadem. The two men head rival parties in the governing coalition.

Belkhadem, 60, a former foreign minister, leads the FLN, or National Liberation Front, the party that ruled Algeria for three decades until 1989 and holds a parliamentary majority. He hails from the party's traditional conservative wing with Islamic sympathies. Ouyahia leads the RND, the National Democratic Rally.

Newspapers here saw Belkhadem's appointment as prime minister as an astute move by Bouteflika as the country puts in place the president's national reconciliation plan which gives amnesty to Islamic extremists who have fought for more than a dozen years in a bloody insurgency.

The plan was approved in a September 29 referendum but remains controversial across some sectors of the population, particularly victims of the violence in which an estimated 150 000 people were killed.

The daily El Watan called Belkhadem the "political guarantee" being offered to former members of the Islamic Salvation Front, a banned Muslim fundamentalist party, to rally to the cause of reconciliation.

Belkhadem's FLN has worked on a project to revise the constitution to extend the presidential mandate from two terms to three and increase his prerogatives. Such a change would allow Bouteflika, reelected in 2004 for five years, to run for a third term should he choose. Elected to a second five-year term in 2004, he was admitted to hospital for nearly five weeks in Paris last year for a reported stomach ulcer.

Ouyahia was opposed to such drastic changes. He also held firm on pay raises despite the funds flowing into state coffers from increased oil prices. - Sapa-AP

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