Algerian president in Paris hospital after stroke

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, pictured on January 14, 2013 in Algiers.  By Farouk Batiche (AFP/File)

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, pictured on January 14, 2013 in Algiers. By Farouk Batiche (AFP/File)

PARIS (AFP) – Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was in a Paris hospital on Sunday after suffering a mini-stroke, raising media doubts about his ability to govern less than a year before a presidential election.

The 76-year-old, in power since 1999, suffered a “transient ischaemia” Saturday and was flown to Paris where he was driven under army escort to the Val de Grace military hospital, which often treats high-profile patients.

Officials in Algeria were quick to allay fears, saying he was responding well, but the media raised fresh questions about his health, which has been an endless source of speculation since 2005 when he had surgery in Paris.

Rachid Bougherbal, director of Algeria’s National Sports Medicine Centre, said the “transient ischaemia” — a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain often called a “mini-stroke” — “did not last long”.

Bouteflika “did not suffer irreversible damage”, he told the state news agency APS, explaining that “no sensory function was impaired”.

But according to the website of the American Heart Association, a transient ischaemia attack “is more accurately characterised as a ‘warning stroke’, a warning you should take very seriously”.

Algeria’s Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal urged calm, in comments reported by APS.

“His situation is not at all serious,” said Sellal, who did not interrupt a visit to the northern city of Bejaia on hearing the news.

Saturday’s late-breaking news made headlines in Algeria, where Bouteflika’s health has sparked much speculation amid doubts over the official version of events.

“The very idea that this news is made public is in itself a media shock,” wrote the francophone daily Liberte.

“This time the presidency has judged the incident to be serious enough not to hide it from the Algerian people.”

Elected in 1999 and re-elected in 2004 and 2009 thanks to a constitutional change ending term limits, Bouteflika had had a health scare in 2005 when he had surgery in Paris for a bleeding stomach ulcer and spent three weeks in Val de Grace.

That hospital stay was shrouded in secrecy, the lack of official information fuelling fears his condition may be more serious than admitted.

In early 2006, Bouteflika spent a week undergoing post-operative medical exams at the same hospital, which has also treated former French presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac.

Several months later he disappeared from public view for 50 days, again feeding the rumour mill.

Then a year after his surgery, he said he had been “very, very sick” but had “come out absolutely fabulous”, emphasising that “people need to stop talking about my health.”

On Sunday, the daily El Watan reported that although Bouteflika’s mini-stroke “dates officially from 12:30 pm yesterday, some sources have confided that the president suffered the attack about a week ago.”

It said the announcement that he was in hospital “above all confirms what all Algerians suspect — the president is indeed sick and his health is a visible obstacle to his exercising power.”

The French-language Le soir d’Algerie was even more blunt in its assessment.

“Is Bouteflika still able to fulfil his functions until the end of his current mandate?” it asked. “And even more, is it still conceivable that his mandate will be renewed for a fourth term?”

A veteran of Algeria’s war for independence from France, Bouteflika later helped end a decade-long civil war that killed at least 150,000 people, and is credited abroad for restoring stability.

But he has been condemned by rights groups and opponents for being authoritarian, despite launching political reforms in April 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring unrest that toppled other long-standing regional rulers.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius refused to comment on Bouteflika’s health, saying only he wished a prompt recovery for the man “who, as president of Algeria, is a friend of France.”