A visit by a group of Algerian journalists and academics to Israel triggered anger and division in Algiers on Tuesday, and led to the demotion of a senior government minister.
After President Abdelaziz Bouteflika called the visit "a betrayal of the Lebanese" and "a stab in the back for the Syrians," an official statement announced that Algeria's Minister of Culture and Communications Abdelmadjid Tebboune had been reassigned.
Tebboune, a close associate of Bouteflika, was named delegate minister for local communities in the interior ministry.
But the daily El Youm vented its hostility towards Bouteflika, saying the visit by Algerian journalists was the fault of the president, who "has made multiple declarations of welcome for Jews and Pieds-Noirs (North Africans of European descent)"
But for the most part, press editorials in Algiers defended the trip, and called Bouteflika's attack an attempt to distract attention from Algeria's internal woes.
El Watan noted that it had already sent five journalists to Israel between 1992 and 1998, while Jeune Independant expressed concern at possible sanctions, saying those who went could be stripped of their nationality.
In Syria, meanwhile, the ruling party newspaper pointed the finger at the Algerian government.
"No one can believe that this gang went there of its own accord without official sanction", the daily Al-Baath said.
"Everyone knows the truth and no one is stupid, and one asks the reasons for this step, which is prejudicial to the Arabs at a time when (Israeli Prime Minister) Ehud Barak's government rejects a fair and comprehensive peace."
"Why are certain parties in Algeria hastening to normalize relations with Israel, without regard to the (international) resolutions which Syria is relying on to secure an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights?" the paper demanded.
Amid the uproar, the Israeli government adopted an uneasy silence over the visit, which had been initially described as positive.
When asked by AFP whether the group planned to cut short its visit as a result of the controversy, foreign ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron declined to say anything except that the visitors were still in Jerusalem.
His reticence was in marked contrast to his stance on Monday, when the press was invited to attend Foreign Minister David Levy's reception for the Algerians.
Shiron said then that the Algerians had been invited by the foreign ministry and that their visit was a good sign.
Levy welcomed the visit as "an important step which we can only encourage," though he remained cautious when asked about the possibility of diplomatic relations being established between the two countries - ALGIERS (AFP)
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