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Assurances over condition of Algeria leader fail to convince

ALGIERS, Algeria -- Official assurances about the improving health of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, hospitalized in France in April, have failed to convince many Algerians, as analysts warn that hiding such details is harder than it was.

On Tuesday, France's defense ministry said Bouteflika was moved from the Val-de-Grace military hospital in Paris to a new facility in the French capital “to continue his convalescence.”

But it gave few other details and no pictures have emerged of the 76-year-old president since he suffered a mini-stroke nearly four weeks ago, which has merely stoked speculation about his condition.

Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal had on Monday denounced the “false information carried by certain foreign media,” insisting that Bouteflika's illness would soon be “no more than an unpleasant memory.”

Sellal said he was “following up daily on the activities of the government.”

But experts are wary of such pronouncements, with precedents in France and Algeria of the public being kept in the dark about their ailing leaders, which they say is harder in the Internet age.

“Secrecy surrounding the illnesses of heads of state is not right in Algeria,” said Brahim Brahimi, head of the Algiers school of journalism.

He referred to the case of former French President Francois Mitterand, “who came to power in 1981 with a cancer that was kept secret for years.”

“It's not new. What is new is that with the Internet, with social media, we can no longer hide anything,” Brahimi added.

He said the Algerian authorities started well, when Bouteflika was flown to Paris for treatment on April 27 following his latest health scare, by responding to popular demand for information and admitting he was ill.

But since then, the occasional and reactive information has only encouraged rumors.

As with the seizure of two opposition newspapers on Saturday for reporting that Bouteflika had been flown back to Algeria last week after lapsing into a coma, which prompted strident official denials that his condition had worsened.

“The mistake by the authorities is the fact that for the past 10 days the state institutions have not played their part,” Brahimi said, pointing out that before Monday's announcement Sellal last broached the subject on May 11, to say the president was “well.”

Kamel Daoud, columnist for French-language Quotidien d'Oran, suggested the authorities were “no longer managing the president's health, like in December 1978,” an allusion to Bouteflika's mentor, former President Houari Boumediene.

Like Bouteflika, Algeria's post-independence strongman appeared increasingly rarely towards the end of his rule, and the illness from which he suffered prior to his death on Dec. 27, 1978 was kept secret for months.

“They need to make a sincere and courageous effort,” said Daoud, who described as a “humiliation” the fact that it was the French government “which informs us that Bouteflika is still in Paris.”

Arabic daily Echorouk also lamented that the “French secret services are precisely informed about the president's health” while Algerians remain in the dark.

Two days after Bouteflika was transferred to France, his doctor in Algeria, Rachid Bougherbal, was quoted by Algerian daily Ennahar saying the president was on the mend and would return to Algeria in “not more than seven days.”

But despite his departure from hospital, uncertainty looms over the president's health, in a country whose politics are typically shrouded in secrecy.

Algerian prosecutors have accused Hichem Aboud, the editor of the two newspapers seized last week, of “undermining state security” and ordered a criminal investigation.

“The ruling clan is managing a vacuum resulting from the head of state's illness. If the illness is not so bad as they suggest, they only have to show him on television,” said one political expert, requesting anonymity.

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