ALGIERS (AFP) – Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika returned home on Tuesday from Paris after a stay of almost three months in hospital that caused huge concern in the North African country, officials said.
The plane that flew Bouteflika from Le Bourget airport near Paris landed at around 1340 GMT at the Boufarik military airport, about 30 kilometres (20 miles) east of Algiers, they said.
A frail-looking Bouteflika, 76, boarded an Algerian presidential jet on a wheelchair after 80 days in Paris where he received treatment for what his doctors described as a mini-stroke.
His state of health sparked major concerns in Algeria given his central constitutional role in running the country, and has also generated intense discussion about next year's elections now that it appears unlikely he will seek a fourth term.
Bouteflika was rushed to the Val-de-Grace military hospital in Paris on April 27 and later moved to the Invalides National Institution to recover.
His office said Bouteflika returned to Algiers "after completing his treatment and a rehabilitation" stint, according to a statement carried by the national news agency APS.
The president "will continue to rest and undergo therapy," it said.
An AFP journalist in Paris said the presidential plane left Le Bourget airport discreetly.
His health has been a source of constant speculation in Algeria, where little has been revealed about the condition of the man who has ruled the country since 1999.
Calls have grown for the constitution's rarely mentioned Article 88 to be invoked, according to which power temporarily transfers to the Senate leader if the president is incapacitated.
In an effort to dispel rumours that his condition was deteriorating, Algerian authorities last month released photographs and footage of Bouteflika on state media, showing him convalescing in the Paris hospital.
The footage showed him sitting in an armchair drinking coffee as he conferred with Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, who visited him in hospital.
The footage revealed Bouteflika, who was wearing a dressing gown, was having difficulty moving one arm.
As such, they failed to convince the media in Algeria, with many newspapers commenting about his weak appearance.
This is not the first time the veteran leader has had health problems. In 2005, he had surgery in Paris for a bleeding stomach ulcer and spent a long period convalescing.
A leaked US diplomatic cable in 2007 suggested he might be suffering from terminal stomach cancer, and since being re-elected for a third term in 2009 he has rarely appeared in public or travelled outside the capital.
Before Bouteflika's latest illness, supporters within the ruling National Liberation Front had made known their desire to see the president seek a fourth term in the election scheduled for next April.
But now there are signs the succession race has begun, at least unofficially, with several people recently declaring themselves candidates.
His absence was greatly felt in Algeria particularly on the July 5 independence anniversary. Bouteflika was the first president ever to miss the highly symbolic ceremony.
Just as his hospitalisation and health were shrouded with secrecy, news of his return were also not forthcoming.
Sellal said Bouteflika was returning home only after his departure was announced by an airport source in Paris, but there was nothing reported in the official media.
The premier made the remarks in the restive region of Tizi Ouzou, bastion of the opposition east of Algiers, during a citizens meeting where he did not take any questions from journalists.
During his absence Algeria's official institutions were not apparently disrupted but his absence was felt due to the powers granted him in the constitution.