*Rare direct intervention by the military after weeks of protests in Algeria

Algeria's army chief of staff called on Tuesday for a constitutional move that would see President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika declared unfit for office, in a rare direct intervention by the military after weeks of protests.

Hundreds of thousands have hit the streets to demand an end to the 20-year rule of the ailing 82-year-old president, part of an ageing and secretive elite entrenched in power since independence from France in 1962. While the military praised the demonstrators, it warned that chaos would not be tolerated.

Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah, addressing army officers in a speech broadcast on two private Algerian TV stations, called for a unified stand to resolve the crisis in the sprawling North African state, a major oil and gas exporter.

Salah said the solution would be based on Article 102 of the constitution and achieve a consensus of "all visions and parties". That article applies under certain conditions, such as deteriorating health. Bouteflika has rarely surfaced in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.

The next formal step is for the constitutional council to formally declare Bouteflika unfit for office, a decision that members of parliament's lower and upper house need to ratify by a two-thirds majority.

Based on Article 102, the chairman of parliament's upper house, Abdelkader Bensalah, would serve as caretaker president for at least 45 days in the nation of more than 40mn people.

El Bilad television said the constitutional council had convened in special session after Salah's intervention.

Algeria's powerful military has traditionally manipulated politics from behind the scenes. The last time it stepped in during a crisis was in 1992, when the generals cancelled an election that Islamists were poised to win.

That move triggered a civil war that killed an estimated 200,000 people. Algerians have dark memories of that conflict and the military is highly sensitive to any instability.

The stakes are high, for Algeria is a leading member of OPEC and a top gas supplier to Europe. It is also regarded by Western states as a partner in counter-terrorism, a significant military player in North Africa and the Sahel, and involved in diplomacy to resolve crises in neighbouring Mali and Libya.

Bouteflika, among the veterans of the 1954-62 war of independence against France who dominate Algeria, consolidated his power by outfoxing would-be rivals in the military and security services, and containing grassroots discontent.

When the "Arab Spring" protests toppled Arab leaders across the region eight years ago, oil revenues enabled him to boost state spending and buy peace in the streets.

But Algerians have since lost patience with unsuccessful efforts to reduce unemployment, ease daily hardships and tackle high-level unaccountability, corruption and nepotism.

In the latest unrest, one ally after another abandoned Bouteflika, emboldening the largely leaderless protesters.

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