Thousands protest in Algeria as Bouteflika stays defiant

Men and women converged on Algiers' landmark Grand Post Office square despite Bouteflika's warning of potential of "chaos".

ALGIERS - Tens of thousands protested across Algeria on Friday in the biggest rallies yet against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term, despite the defiant leader's warning of the risk of "chaos".

A rally in the capital Algiers slowed to a near-crawl by the huge numbers taking part, swelled by women marking International Women's Day and chanting "No fifth term -- hey, Bouteflika!"

Waving Algeria's green-white-and-red flags, men and women converged on the city's landmark Grand Post Office square after weekly prayers.

The situation was calm, and several police vans which had been surrounded by crowds began to leave the area.

Peaceful protests were also being staged in several other cities, including Oran and Constantine, according to the TSA news site.

'Insidious' infiltration

In a message released on the eve of the fresh protests, Bouteflika -- who uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since a 2013 stroke -- warned that trouble-makers may try to infiltrate the demonstrations.

"Many of our fellow citizens" have demonstrated across the North African country "to peacefully express their views", he said.

"However, we must call for vigilance and caution in case this peaceful expression is infiltrated by some insidious party... which could cause chaos," he said, without mention of the demands that he abandon his bid to seek re-election on April 18.

Bouteflika flagged the risk of a return to the "national tragedy" of Algeria's decade-long civil war in the 1990s and of the "crises and tragedies caused by terrorism" in neighbouring countries.

The head of state has been in Switzerland since February 24 for what the presidency has described as "routine medical tests", and a date for his return home has not yet been announced.

Swiss police said Rachid Nekkaz -- an increasingly popular political activist opposed to Bouteflika -- was arrested on Friday outside the Geneva hospital where the president is being treated.

Nekkaz fell foul of Algerian electoral laws because he has previously held French nationality and stood aside for a cousin of the same name to run on his behalf.

Algeria has largely avoided the conflicts unleashed by the Arab Spring uprisings that brought down rulers in neighbouring Tunisia and Libya.

But discontent, particularly among the young, turned to anger after the veteran leader announced on February 10 that he would seek another bid for power.

Calls had circulated widely on social media under the hashtag "#March 8 Movement" for massive but peaceful demonstrations in the capital and cities across the North African state on Friday.

'Day of Celebration'

"I will not throw a single stone!" and "No windows will be smashed," were among "18 commandments" sent out to participants by poet and writer Lazhari Labter, as well as instructions to clean up streets after the protests.

He also called for demonstrators to turn the event into "a day of celebration" and one of "love, faith, Algerian flags and roses".

Michael Ayari, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, said that there is no "anti-police (or) anti-army dimension" to the protests, unlike the beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in 2011.

He believes "the army could try to steer a possible transition process", citing retired general Ali Ghediri -- a presidential candidate -- as a potential consensus choice.

In Tunis, volunteers signed up to marshall protest routes, provide first aid and to clean up, while drivers shuttled participants to venues from outside city centres.

The country's leaders "will not give in easily, but we won't either", said a taxi driver, summing up the popular mood.

Despite a ban dating back to 2001, demonstrations have been staged almost daily in Algiers since a massive rally two weeks ago.

Bouteflika's message on Thursday came as around 1,000 lawyers took to the streets of Algiers, arguing that his ill health should disqualify him from the race.

They breached police cordons to march on the Constitutional Council, the body tasked with approving the candidacy of those registered to contest the poll.