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Algeria's military chief Gaid Salah dies amid protest crisis

ALGIERS – Algeria's powerful military chief Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, who was instrumental in pushing out the gas-rich country's long-serving president amid pro-democracy protests earlier this year, died unexpectedly Monday.

Gaid Salah's death thrusts Algeria into new political uncertainty as a tumultuous year comes to a close. Algeria's military plays a central role in decision-making in this country, a key ally to Western powers in fighting Islamic extremism.

Gaid Salah, a product of the old guard that won Algeria's independence from France in 1962 after a brutal seven-year war, died Monday morning in the military hospital of Algiers after a heart attack, according to state radio and state news agency APS. Algerian media reports said Gaid Salah was 79 or 80 years old.

Gaid Salah was seen as the main power player in Algeria, especially since protesters with his backing pushed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika out of office in April after 20 years in power.

The military chief then championed an unprecedented push against corruption — including by people in Bouteflika's inner circle — and pushed for new presidential elections.

The winner, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, was widely seen as close to the miltary chief, and the two were seen warmly embracing at Tebboune's inauguration just four days ago. Gaid Salah had suffered heart problems in the past, according to Algerian media reports, but his death came a shock to most Algerians.

Tebboune declared an exceptional full week of mourning, an indication of the military chief's importance.

Gaid Salah is being replaced on a temporary basis by another high-ranking general, Said Chengriha, according to state radio.

Gaid Salah also served as vice-minister of defense in the government, and gave the pro-democracy movement the final, determining assist that led to Bouteflika's resignation .

However protesters later turned against Gaid Salah, demanding instead a wholesale makeover of Algeria's political structure.

As the strongman in a power vacuum with an interim government considered illegitimate by protesters, he then ceaselessly pressed for presidential elections in frequent trips to army barracks around Africa's biggest country.

He also was behind a massive corruption drive that included the arrest and conviction of Bouteflika's brother Said, who was blamed for creating a rich and powerful circle of oligarchs. Once-feared intelligence chiefs also were convicted.

Gaid Salah argued that his goal was to preserve “the revolution” from foreign hands he didn't name but that he said were manipulating protesters.