Middle East

Algeria mourns first president Ben Bella

Mahdia ben Bella, second left, pays respect to her father and late Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella in Algiers, Thursday, April 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Sidali Djarboub)

ALGIERS: Algeria was in mourning on Thursday after the death of its first post-independence president Ahmed Ben Bella, hailed as an anti-colonialist hero and the father of the nation.

The body of Ben Bella, who died at home on Wednesday at the age of 95 following a recent hospital stay for respiratory problems, was taken to the People's Palace in Algiers where it was to lie in state for 24 hours.

State television showed his flag-draped coffin being carried by six senior army officials, who were followed by his two daughters Mehdia and Noria.

"Farewell, father to Algerians," proclaimed L'Expression newspaper, which like other media outlets extolled Ben Bella and the profound mark he left on the north African country.

One of the "historical leaders of the revolution takes his leave just ahead of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of independence" on July 5, Le Quotidien newspaper noted.

"Goodbye Father of Algerians," said the popular Echourouk newspaper, while El-Watan's headline read "Farewell to a Monument of History".

Ben Bella was "without doubt the most controversial and complex political figure in our country's history", El-Watan also claimed.

Current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who said Algeria had lost one of its bravest leaders, went to the People's Palace to greet the coffin.

Bouteflika on Wednesday declared an an eight-day period of national mourning, with Ben Bella's funeral to be held on Friday.

Ordinary Algerians also headed to the People's Palace to pay their last respects.

One of them, 77-year-old Ahmed Sekara, a retired army officer and former Sonatrach petrol company manager, praised Ben Bella "who did his best to ensure that Algeria won independence for all of its territory".

The state funeral is to take place Friday afternoon, following weekly prayer meetings and the former statesman will be buried in the Martyrs' plot in Algiers' El Alia cemetery, alongside other independence fighters.

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki and Morocco's Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, from two of the countries bordering Algeria, announced they would attend the funeral.

A number of other countries were expected to be represented by their ambassadors, though questions have been raised as to whether female ambassadors should be allowed to attend the funeral -- which in Islamic countries is normally an all-male affair, diplomats said.

A charismatic hero of Algeria's independence from France, Ben Bella was president from 1963 to 1965, when he was overthrown by his defence minister, Houari Boumediene, a close ally of Bouteflika.

His military experience began when he joined a colonial unit of the French army and served in World War II, for which he was decorated for shooting down a German plane over the French Mediterranean 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 spent the rest of the war in prison. In all Ben Bella spent a total of 24 years in French and Algerian prisons.

France granted Algeria independence in 1962 and freed Ben Bella, who became the new nation's first president a year later.





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