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Defense Chief Picked by Panel to Lead Algeria

<i> From Associated Press</i>

A secretive army-backed committee named Algeria’s hard-line defense minister as president Sunday, tightening the military’s control of the country.

The High Security Council named Lamine Zeroual to a three-year term. He takes office today, succeeding a five-man, military-backed committee that took power two years ago.

The new president is supposed to be a transitional figure who will lead the country back to democracy.

Zeroual, a 53-year-old retired general, has a reputation for espousing hard-line policies against Islamic radicals. He said in a speech Jan. 16 that he hoped for a “political solution” to Algeria’s crisis, but insisted that Muslim militants “must renounce violence forever.”

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A national conference last week was to have chosen the president but failed after all major political parties boycotted the meeting.

All were protesting the exclusion of the Islamic Salvation Front, the banned fundamentalist group that has waged a two-year insurgency against the government.

It was the front’s apparent victory in elections two years ago that prompted the military to step in, oust the government, cancel the elections and ban the front. Since then, about 3,000 people have died in the insurgency.

Zeroual’s powers will include being head of the military and being able to declare a state of emergency.

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