January 29, 2010 / 12:50 PM / 10 years ago

Vacuum feared as Algeria's veteran king-maker dies

* Retired Major-General Larbi Belkheir dies aged 72

* He was interior minister, adviser to several presidents

* Belkheir was mediator between rival groups: analysts

By Lamine Chikhi

ALGIERS, Jan 29 (Reuters) - A retired general who was Algeria’s political king-maker for decades has died, potentially leaving a vacuum at the centre of the energy exporter’s complex and opaque political system.

Larbi Belkheir, who died on Thursday aged 72, was part of a generation of military officers who formed the bedrock of Algeria’s ruling elite since independence from France in 1962.

But in the past few years many have died or left public life, altering the political landscape in a country that supplies 20 percent of Europe’s gas and which is still emerging from a long armed conflict with Islamist militants.

A former interior minister and presidential chief advisor, Belkheir played a central role in the emergence of two heads of state. He also acted as a mediator between the competing groups which share power in Algeria.

“His death could worsen the lack of coordination between the decision makers,” Algerian political analyst and writer Abed Charef told Reuters.

Under Algeria’s constitution, political power is held by the president and parliament, which are both elected. Most analysts say though that the military and security services have substantial influence over decision-making.

The ruling system faces the challenge of how to manage the transition to a new generation of leaders. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is 72. His third term ends in 2014 and he has not said if he will exercise his right to seek re-election.

MEDIATOR

Belkheir spent the last few years as Algeria’s ambassador to Morocco. His influence declined but he was sometimes still called upon to help resolve disputes, analysts said.

“For at least three decades, he played a key role in Algeria’s political life, particularly in finding common ground between the military and the civilians,” political analyst Mahmoud Belhimer told Reuters.

Belkheir died in Algiers after suffering respiratory problems, official media reported. He was to be buried on Friday afternoon in the El Alia cemetery east of Algiers, reserved for the country’s most distinguished soldiers and public servants.

A veteran of the war of independence from France, Belkheir was the senior adviser to President Chadli Benjedid who was in office from 1979 until 1992. He also served as Bouteflika’s senior advisor during his first term from 1999 until 2004.

Belkheir was Interior Minister in 1991, when the radical Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win a legislative election. He was instrumental in having the election cancelled and in Benjedid’s replacement by an emergency Council of State.

Soon after, a conflict began between security forces and armed Islamist rebels which killed about 200,000 people, according to estimates by international non-governmental groups.

The insurgents, now operating as al Qaeda’s North African branch, stage sporadic ambushes and bomb attacks but the violence has declined significantly in the past few years. (Reporting by Lamine Chikhi; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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