First Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella dies aged 95

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Friday, April 13, 2012

A 60s file photo of Ben Bella

Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of Algeria, died on Wednesday. He was 95.

Known for his struggle against French rule, Ben Bella led the nation from 1963 to 1965 having only learned Arabic during a prison sentence. He came from a poor, agricultural background and left school early, but it was during his schooldays he joined Messali Hadj's Algerian People's Party.

Serving in World War II, Ben Bella was decorated with five medals for actions including conflict at the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy and shooting down a German aircraft over Marseille, France. After the war he was elected to seniority within a group dedicated to ending French rule.

The movement was deemed illegal and Ben Bella escaped and fled two years after his 1951 arrest for his part in a fundraising robbery. He became a fugitive in Cairo. In 1956 he was re-arrested and imprisoned. A bloody conflict for Algerian independence eventually convinced France to relinquish control in 1962 and Ben Bella was freed. The following year he took control of a one-party nation.

Within years of attaining power, defence minister Houari Boumediene, an ally of current president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, overthrew Ben Bella in a coup. Ben Bella had grappled with post-war consolidation after about 1.5 million French left the nation, leaving gaps in its economy.

Ben Bella died at his Algiers home whilst asleep. He had been receiving hospital treatment for breathing problems. "Today we lost one of modern Algeria's bravest leaders," said Bouteflika, declaring eight days of mourning. Successive regimes detained Ben Bella first in prison and later his home from his deposition to 1980 when he left for Switzerland in exile, before being pardoned a decade later. He married journalist Zohra Sellami in 1971.