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Algeria's Bouteflika Makes Rare Appearance After Opponents Call for Early Polls

FILE - A picture from video footage broadcast by Algeria's "Canal Algerie" on July 5, 2016 shows wheelchair-bound President Abdelaziz Bouteflika visiting El-Alia cemetery where independence fighters are buried in an eastern Algiers suburb.

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika made a rare appearance on Thursday to inaugurate a conference center, though there was no live coverage of the
event and no images of the ailing leader were immediately released.

Since suffering a stroke three years ago Bouteflika has dramatically reduced his public activity, leading Algeria's opposition to question his ability to rule Africa's biggest country, and to continuing speculation over the 79-year-old
president's health.

Presidential polls are not due until 2019, but Bouteflika's opponents have called for early elections because of his physical frailty. Legislative elections are scheduled for the first half of 2017.

Analysts said Bouteflika's appearance was designed to dampen demands for early presidential elections.

"An anticipated presidential election is not an option for now," political analyst Arslan Chikhaoui told Reuters.

Bouteflika was last seen openly in public two years ago when he voted from a wheelchair in the ballot that saw him elected for a fourth five-year term.

His most recent previous appearance was for Algeria's Independence Day celebrations on July 5, and he is usually only seen in brief state television videos greeting visiting dignitaries at his presidential residence.

Talk of transition comes at a sensitive time, as Algeria tries to cut spending and subsidies to offset a sharp drop in revenues from oil sales.

Algeria is a key supplier of gas to Europe and has positioned itself as an important Western ally in efforts to tackle Islamist militancy in North Africa and the Sahel.

First elected in 1999, Bouteflika is still praised by many Algerians as the man who led Algeria out of international isolation and a war with armed Islamists that left an estimated 200,000 people dead in the 1990s.

The conference center that Bouteflika inaugurated, west of the capital Algiers, is to be used for a meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on September 26-28.

A report by state news agency APS said Bouteflika had unveiled a plaque and visited his personal office within the center, before watching a short film by the Chinese and Italian firms that built and designed the structure.