ALGIERS, April 11, 2012 (AFP)
ALGIERS, April 11, 2012 (AFP)
The first president of independent Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella, died Wednesday in Algiers at the age of 95, state news agency APS reported, citing members of his inner circle.
Ben Bella, who had recently been released from a hospital stay for respiratory problems, died at his family home in the capital, APS said.
His biographer Mohammed Benelhadj told AFP: “Mr Ben Bella died at 3:00 pm (1400 GMT) in his sleep.”
He said Ben Bella’s daughters Mehdia and Noria were at his side.
“This death is a loss for Algeria and the world, especially at a time when Algeria is approaching a historic turning point aimed at peaceful change, which the president always wanted,” said Miloud Chorfi, spokesman for Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia’s party, referring to May 10 parliamentary elections.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s office has not yet announced funeral plans.
A hero of Algeria’s independence from France and one of the 20th century’s most vocal anti-imperialists, Ben Bella was president from 1963 to 1965, when he was overthrown by his defence minister, Houari Boumediene, a close ally of Bouteflika.
Born December 25, 1916 to poor farmers, Ben Bella was a school dropout who only learnt to read and write Arabic in prison.
He became involved in nationalist politics as a schoolboy, joining the Algerian People’s Party of Messali Hadj.
“I entered politics at 15,” he said in a 2001 interview with an Egyptian newspaper. “I was thrown in at the deep end.”
He joined a colonial unit of the French army and served in World War II. He was decorated for shooting down a German plane over the French port of Marseille, and for his service in the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944.
After the war, Ben Bella became a leading member of the Special Organisation, founded to prepare for an anti-colonial uprising.
He was arrested after taking part in a robbery to obtain funds, escaped to Cairo, then was arrested again in 1956. He rode out the rest of the war in prison.
The impact of the increasingly horrific conflict led to France granting independence and freeing Ben Bella, who became the new nation’s first president.
Charismatic and popular, he was a fervent advocate of the Non-Aligned Movement, alongside Cuba’s Fidel Castro, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.
But he struggled as president to restore stability to the war-torn country, as some 1.5 million mainly French settlers — who had run much of the trading and farming sector — fled.
In June 1965, after less than two years in power, he was overthrown in a military coup led by former ally Boumediene.
Detained by the new regime, Ben Bella was placed under house arrest until 1980. He served a total of 24 years as a prisoner of both the French colonial government and its nationalist successors.
In 1971, while still being held, he married Zohra Sellami, a leftist journalist.
Ben Bella had since 2007 chaired the African Union’s panel of experts tasked with advising the AU’s peace and security council on conflict prevention and resolution.
He remained politically active until his death, but his health started deteriorating when Sellami died in 2010.