By William Maclean

Algiers - Former president Lamine Zeroual ruled himself out of Algeria's presidential race on Wednesday - making it more likely that incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika will win if he chooses to stand in the April presidential election.

Zeroual, a retired army general who was president of the north African oil- and gas-exporting country from 1994 to 1999, had been urged to run by admirers seeking to thwart a widely expected bid by Bouteflika to extend his decade in power.

Announcing the move in a statement published in newspapers, Zeroual, 67, made a polite but pointed criticism of the anticipated attempt by Bouteflika to obtain a third five-year term at the helm of the Opec-member country of 34 million.

"A democracy can't be set up without alternation at the top of the state," the statement said.

"By deciding freely and definitely to renounce my political career, I thought the time had come for an alternation," he said, recalling his decision to step down a year ahead of the end of a mandate that was originally scheduled to end in 2000.

"I never believed in the concept of the man of providence," he said, suggesting his motive for not standing was that he had had his turn in power and that the future lay in building credible institutions rather than relying on individuals.

Zeroual, a strong-minded character known for his distaste for political compromise, is regarded by some Algerians as a man of principle for having voluntarily renounced the presidency.

Some analysts say they believe Zeroual's motive in resigning was dissatisfaction with aspects of the government's fight against an Islamist rebellion that had broken out in 1991.

Constitutional change

Bouteflika, 71 and in the final months of his second term, delighted supporters and angered critics in November when lawmakers ended a two-term limit for the presidency at his suggestion, opening the way for him to stand in the election.

Bouteflika is expected to announce his candidature in the coming weeks and campaign on what his supporters call his successes in rebuilding the country after a civil war in the 1990s between the army and Islamist militants. A precise date has not yet been set for the election.

The November 12 constitutional change triggered complaints from anti-Bouteflika Islamists and secularists who called the move a power grab sure to prolong economic failings widely blamed for unemployment, lack of housing and a national mood of gloom.

A search for a consensus candidate to challenge Bouteflika has so far proved fruitless, partly because many in the demoralised opposition believe that Bouteflika's likely candidature has won the tacit backing of the secretive military group known as "le pouvoir" (the power) which has dominated Algerian politics since independence. - Reuters