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Algeria's president rejects vote-rigging claims

Bouteflika to finish term, a sign of nation's growing stability

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Abdelaziz Bouteflika

ALGIERS, Algeria (Reuters) -- Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika rejected accusations by the opposition that he was rigging coming elections, saying Sunday that Algerians would be free to pick any candidate in the April 8 vote.

In his first comments since making public his re-election bid Thursday, Bouteflika told about 2,000 supporters that the vote would be free, fair and transparent.

"If the people really want me to continue to implement my program, good. If they think otherwise, I'll respect their decision," he said during his candidacy speech at Algiers' largest hotel. "I know that Algerians will freely decide their future."

Bouteflika, backed by the military, won a 1999 election boycotted by all other candidates because of fraud allegations.

He is favored to win another five-year term in a poll that will be closely watched abroad to gauge the stability of the Muslim country of 32 million, still suffering from a decade of bloody civil strife.

The opposition accused Bouteflika again Sunday of using state funds to get re-elected, quashing political parties through the use of the judicial system and cracking down on an independent press.

He has denied any wrongdoing and, in a move to head off growing international concern, has invited foreign election observers and called on all political parties to take part in a national electoral commission to oversee the vote.

The military has said it will stay neutral in the elections.

Bouteflika has boosted Algeria's image abroad and almost brought to an end a decade of violence ignited by the cancellation by army-backed authorities of legislative elections which an Islamic fundamentalist party was due to win in 1992.

More than 150,000 died in the armed uprising by Islamic rebels that followed, according to human rights groups.

Peace offer to rebels

In his election pledge, Bouteflika said he would continue the drive for national reconciliation he initiated in 1999 with a referendum-backed amnesty for rebels who laid down their arms.

"Those who want to return and live among us are welcome, but they have to do it now ... those who decide to continue fighting will be stopped by us," he said.

Fewer than 1,000 rebels are still fighting for a Taliban-style state, compared with 25,000 in the early 1990s.

The hardline Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, responsible for the kidnapping last year of 32 European tourists and the killing of more than 20 people in recent weeks, has rejected the amnesty, as has the Armed Islamic Group -- notorious for slitting the throats of its victims.

Bouteflika is on track to be the first president in 15 years to complete his term, a sign of increased stability in Algeria.

He said his campaign would focus on boosting the oil and gas-rich economy, which grew 6.8 percent in 2003 compared with less than 2 percent when he came to office.

"The harvest has been good these past five years. Unemployment is not as high has it used to be, hundreds of thousands of houses have been built and economic growth is back despite the fact that we faced several natural disasters," he said.

Algeria was hit last year by an earthquake that killed 2,300 people and caused billions of dollars' worth of damage. That followed devastating floods the year before.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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