Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first president after the country became independent from France half a century ago, has died following an illness, state media reported on Wednesday.
Ben Bella, who was reportedly aged 96, was released from hospital after undergoing tests in February, Algeria Press Agency cited relatives as saying.
He was Algeria’s president from its independence in 1962 to 1965, when he was overthrown by his defence minister, Houari Boumediene, a close ally of current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The son of peasant farmers who grew up near Algeria’s border with Morocco, Ben Bella was one of the leading figures in the war for independence from France after World War Two, and spent several years in French prisons.
When France relinquished control of Algeria in 1962, Ben Bella became president but he was unseated three years later in an internal coup by Houari Boumediene, a fellow independence fighter who took over as head of state.
Ben Bella subsequently spent years in jail and exile before returning to Algeria in 1999.
Ben Bella had since 2007 chaired the African Union’s panel of experts tasked with advising the AU’s peace and security council on conflict prevention and resolution.
His death coincides with the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence, a date which many Algerians see as bitter-sweet because they feel the aspirations of the country’s founding fathers, embodied by Ben Bella, have not been fully realized.
Called up into the French military after school, Ben Bella played for the top-flight Olympique de Marseille soccer club. During World War Two he fought with French forces against the Germans and Italians.
He distinguished himself in the battle of Monte Cassino, in Italy, in 1944, and was decorated personally by General Charles de Gaulle, the man who later, as his country’s president, would give up French rule over Algeria.
When he returned home after the war, Ben Bella was swept up in a wave of anti-French feeling following a massacre, by French forces, of protesters on May 8, 1945.
He joined the underground independence movement which at the time was building its ranks and taking part in activities such as post office robberies to gain funds.
He was arrested in 1950 but escaped and fled to Cairo, where he established ties with Gamal Abdel Nasser, who would later become Egyptian president and one of independent Algeria’s closest allies.
Ben Bella was arrested again in 1956 when the Moroccan aircraft carrying him and fellow leaders of the independence movement was intercepted by the French military.
He was freed soon after France declared a ceasefire, ending a war for independence that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Twenty years later, recalling the moment Algeria became an independent state, Ben Bella said: “It was a big moment for which a high price was paid, too high.”