(This August 2 story has been refiled to remove extraneous word from paragraph 6)
ALGIERS (Reuters) – Algeria’s president phoned his Turkish counterpart last month to secure the return of a fugitive military official who fled Algeria days after its powerful army chief died in December, a top Algerian security source said.
Guermit Bounouira was handed over to Algerian security officials in Turkey on Thursday, accused of leaking military secrets, and will face a military judge on Monday in Blida prison southwest of Algiers, the source told Reuters.
Turkish officials were not immediately available to comment on Sunday, which is not a working day in Turkey. A lawyer for Bounouira was not immediately available for comment.
Turkey’s surrender of Bounouira to Algerian authorities underscores the importance Ankara attaches to its relationship with Algeria, a powerful neighbour of Libya where Turkish forces have intervened in the civil war.
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune phoned Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan about a week before Islam’s Eid al-Adha holiday, which began on Friday, to request he hand Bounouira over, the source said.
Bounouira, a top aide to the late army chief Ahmed Gaed Salah, is accused of leaking a chart showing movements of army officers including their names and codes, the source said. The chart has circulated on social media, embarrassing the army, although it was unclear who posted it.
Gaed Salah emerged last year as Algeria’s most powerful man when weekly mass protests succeeded in unseating the veteran president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and a host of other officials.
However, Gaed Salah died suddenly of a heart attack on Dec. 23, weeks after a presidential election that he had pushed for, but which the street protest movement opposed as illegitimate.
Bounouira fled to Turkey in the week after Gaed Salah died and the Algerian security source said he had subsequently leaked military secrets to activists based abroad.
“Guermit was Gaed Salah’s closest man. As such he was aware of military secrets,” the source said.
Tebboune, who won the December election, is trying to stamp his own mark on Algeria’s government after Bouteflika’s two decades in office and appointed a new army chief in January, though the military remains Algeria’s most powerful institution.
The Algerian president has pushed for Libya’s neighbours to have a bigger role in finding a solution to the conflict there, and opposes direct foreign involvement.
Turkey directly intervened there in January in support of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) against eastern-based Libyan forces backed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
For Ankara, any direct Algerian opposition to its role in Libya could complicate a military operation far from its own shores.
However, despite some disagreements over Libya, Algeria and Turkey have maintained good relations. “We have worked very well with our counterparts in Turkey,” the Algerian security source said.
(Reporting by Lamine Chikhi, additional reporting by Jonathan Spicer in Istanbul, editing by Angus McDowall and Giles Elgood)