- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

ALGIERS, Algeria, March 2 (UPI) — French President Jacques Chirac received a hero's welcome as he landed in Algiers Sunday, for his first formal visit to the former French colony as head of state.

More than 1 million cheering people packed Algeria's capital to

welcome the French leader, as Chirac slowly made his way though the streets with his wife Bernadette and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

At one point, the crowd broke through a security barrier to touch Chirac's hands, according to local news reports.

Chirac is widely regarded by Algerians as heir to the policies of former leader Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who granted Algeria independence after it fought a bloody liberation war with

France.

During an interview published Saturday by Algeria's El Watan newspaper, Chirac called for a "strong, confident and serene relations between the two countries," as a new chapter in French-Algerian relations begins.

"The Algerian war was a sad page in our common history that we cannot, and must not bury," Chirac said. "The victims, all the victims, deserve respect."

This is not the first visit to Algeria by Chirac. He served in the North African country during the war of independence and also made a quick stop in Algiers during the floods of December 2001. And previous French presidents also visited Algeria during their terms in office.

But Chirac's three-day visit is billed as the first official trip by a French head of state since Algerian independence and thus fraught with symbolic importance.

On Sunday, Chirac and Bouteflika signed a "friendship declaration," expected to evolve into a full-fledged friendship treaty similar to that between France and Germany. Under such an agreement, French and Algerian leaders would meet regularly, and their ministers would forge closer, cooperative relations.

The French President is also expected to address both houses of parliament on Monday before traveling to the northwestern city of Oran on Tuesday to meet with Algerian youths.

He returns to France later that day.

The visit isn't without controversy. Algerians, hard-pressed by the dismal economy, want France to raise its visa quotas, slashed during the country's bloody civil war of the 1990s.

Others want Chirac to highlight Algeria's spotty human rights record. France has also been criticized for launching a special, cultural "Algeria year in France" in 2003, by Algerian dissidents and others protesting the country's military-backed government.

(Reported by Elizabeth Bryant in Paris.)

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