Algeria's Bouteflika reshuffles cabinet

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Wednesday made several senior cabinet appointments, his office said, in a surprise reshuffle seen as a boost to the ageing leader's grip on power.

The changes to the government headed by Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal affect key ministries, including interior, defence and foreign affairs, the presidency said in a statement.

General Ahmed Gaid Salah, considered close to Bouteflika, was designated deputy defence minister while retaining his post as army chief, while Tayeb Belaiz, who heads the constitutional council, was appointed interior minister.

Ramtane Lamamra, a seasoned diplomat, was named the new foreign minister, and former labour minister Tayeb Louh was appointed to head the justice ministry.

Bouteflika, who has been in power for 14 years, retains the defence ministry, while the energy and finance portfolios held by Youcef Yousfi and Karim Djoudi remain unchanged.

The reshuffle, a year after the last cabinet was formed, is one of the first major actions by the 76-year-old president since he returned home in July following an absence of almost three months due to health problems.

He was flown to Paris in April for hospital treatment after suffering what his doctors described as a mini-stroke.

Political analyst Rashid Tlemcani said the cabinet appointments strengthened Bouteflika's hand seven months ahead of planned presidential polls.

"He has increased his powers by appointing people close to him, such as the new Interior Minister Tayeb Belaiz, in anticipation of the presidential election," Tlemcani said.

Bouteflika's fragile health has seriously weakened his chances of standing for a fourth term in office, although his supporters have not given up on the idea.

Countering speculation about his ability to rule, the president has been pictured by state media, both in the Paris hospital where he convalesced and back in Algiers, receiving his prime minister and army chief and discussing the daily affairs of government.

Wednesday's cabinet appointments also come just two weeks after Bouteflika's National Liberation Front chose Ammar Saidani as its new secretary general, amid an internal political crisis that had split the ruling party into two camps.

The FLN has ruled Algeria since its independence from France in 1962.