Algeria frees protest detainees including war veteran

Lakhdar Bouregaa, a prominent veteran of Algeria's war of independence against France, was arrested in June on allegations of "insulting a state body" and "demoralising" the army.

ALGIERS - Algeria released 76 detainees on Thursday including a prominent opposition activist, the Justice Ministry said, as the state seeks to end months of mass protests.

Those released included Lakhdar Bouregaa, a veteran of the 1960s war of independence who was detained in June, and retired general Hocine Benhadid, according to a ministry statement. Dozens of others have also been freed in recent days.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was elected last month in a vote that the opposition had opposed as illegitimate, is seeking dialogue with the leaderless protest movement.

Political analysts in Algiers said the release of the detainees may be aimed at winning support among the opposition for talks.

"The release of Bouregaa today is a good signal to alleviate the tension," analyst Farid Ferrahi said.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in February, marching first daily and then weekly, and succeeding in April in forcing veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down.

The state authorities, including the powerful military, have tried to quell the protesters by arresting many Bouteflika allies on corruption charges, while allowing the demonstrations to continue.

Tebboune, seen as an establishment insider, was elected in a vote that the protest movement opposed as illegitimate, demanding that the entire ruling elite quit power before any election could take place. He took 58% of votes with a turnout of 40% according to official figures.

The election had been pushed by the army and its chief of staff, Ahmed Gaed Salah, who died suddenly last week of a heart attack. Tebboune swiftly replaced him with another general of the same generation, the land forces chief, Said Chengriha.

Although many protesters saw Gaed Salah and allied generals as the main obstacle in their path, many of them also credited him for not using violence against their demonstrations. Hundreds of thousands of people attended his funeral procession.

Bouregaa, a veteran of Algeria's war of independence in the 1960s, was detained in June as the authorities began to arrest more of the protesters who had flooded the streets since February.

The 86-year-old was arrested at his home in Algiers for "insulting a state body" and "taking part in a scheme to demoralise the army with the aim of harming the nation's defence".

"His trial, which was due to start this (Thursday) morning, has been postponed and the judge has decided to release him," Abdelghani Badi, one of Bouregaa's lawyers, said.

Badi said that Bouregaa, who underwent emergency surgery for a hernia during his detention in November, would remain free during his trial, postponed until March 12.

Bouregaa was a commander of the National Liberation Army - which fought French colonial rule - and a founder in 1963 of the Front for Socialist Forces, one of Algeria's oldest opposition parties.

Before his arrest, he took part in the demonstrations that have rocked Algeria since last February - initially against Bouteflika, and then the wider establishment, after Bouteflika was forced to resign.

Bouregaa's arrest provoked outrage in Algeria, notably from supporters of the "Hirak" protest movement, who branded him a "prisoner of conscience" and demanded his release.

About 180 protesters, activists and journalists were arrested ahead of the unpopular presidential election on December 12, many for waving Berber flags at protests or making critical comments online.