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Algerian army warns it will not allow return to civil war as protests continue

Chief of Staff Gaed Salah said some parties wanted to return to 'era of extreme pain' of the 1990s violence
Thousands of university students from campuses across Algiers marched in the capital (AFP)

Algeria's army chief warned he would not allow his country to return to an era of bloodshed, as protests against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's re-election bid continue.

"There are some parties who want Algeria to return to the era of extreme pain," Lieutenant General Gaed Salah said, referring to the country's civil war in the 1990s, according to the Ennahar TV station.

Salah, who was visiting a military academy in Cherchell, west of the capital Algiers, said the military would not allow a breakdown in security.

In 1991, the military cancelled an election that an Islamist party was poised to win.

A decade of violence followed in which around 200,000 people were killed as the security forces crushed the ensuing insurgency.

Thousands of students marched on Tuesday against Bouteflika's candidacy, brushing aside his pledge not to serve a full fifth term.

Following mass demonstrations, the veteran leader promised at the weekend that if he wins the April poll he will, after one year, organise a "national conference" to set a date for further elections which he would not contest.

But his pledge, made in a letter read out late Sunday on state television, has been angrily dismissed as an insult by Algerians weary of his two-decade-old rule.

Rallies demanding the 82-year-old resign have rocked Algeria since 22 February, with protesters mobilised by calls on social media, in a country where half the population is under 30 and many young people struggle to find jobs.

'Bring on the army'

On Tuesday, thousands of university students from campuses across Algiers marched in the capital, many carrying their country's flag.

Abderahman, a 21-year-old student, said Bouteflika "wants an extra year" in power.

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"We don't want him to stay even an extra second. He should leave now," he said.

Police deployed across the centre of the capital where protests have been banned since 2001.

The TSA news website reported similar protests in Algeria's second and third cities, Oran and Constantine, as well as in other towns and cities.

"Hey Bouteflika, there won't be a fifth term," the students chanted in central Algiers, a reporter for the AFP news agency said.

Onlookers applauded them and motorists honked their horns in a show of support.

In a sign they will not back down from protests calling on the president to resign, the students chanted "bring on the army commandos and the BRI (police rapid response squad)".

'No means no!'

Tuesday's rallies came in response to calls on social media for students to gather outside the iconic building housing Algiers' main post office.

"No means no! Hasn't he understood the message of the people?" asked Selma, who studies mathematics. 

"Today we will make it clear for him, and again on Friday," which has been the main day for protests, she said.

A sign held up by protesters read: "No studies, no teaching until the system falls", as students were reportedly considering going on strike.

Meanwhile, the sprawling Bab Ezzouar campus of the University of Algiers, just outside the capital, was deserted.

"There is a massive strike by students... I've never seen anything like it since the 1980 Berber Spring," a professor told AFP.

She was referring to a weeks-long uprising demanding cultural rights for Algeria's Berber community, who long fought for greater recognition for their customs and ancient language overshadowed by Arabic culture.

University professors were also meeting on Tuesday to decide if they too should go on strike.

The bar association of lawyers in the city of Bejaia, 180km east of Algiers, also called on its members to follow in the footsteps of their colleagues in Constantine and go on strike.

'Heard the cry'

Bouteflika suffered a stroke in 2013 and is rarely seen in public.

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He formally submitted his candidacy for the 18 April poll just before a midnight deadline on Sunday.

It was handed in by his campaign manager Abdelghani Zaalane as the president has been in Switzerland since 24 February for what the presidency has described as "routine medical tests".

In Sunday's message he said that his pledge not to serve a full term if re-elected "will ensure I am succeeded in undeniable conditions of serenity, freedom and transparency."

Acknowledging the protests against him, he said: "I listened and heard the cry from the hearts of protesters and in particular the thousands of young people who questioned me about the future of our homeland."