Ben Bella passed away Wednesday at the age of 96, Radio France Internationale reported.
Ben Bella volunteered to serve in the French army in 1936. Awarded the "Croix de guerre" and the "Medialle militare" military honors by Charles de Gaulle, Ben Bella's turning point came in 1945. After learning of an uprising in the small Algerian town of Setif, which was brutally crushed by French soldiers, Ben Bella refused his officer's commission.
He went on to help found the "Organisation Speciale," an underground rebel group dedicated to fighting colonialism, which later became the National Liberation Front, Algeria's ruling party. He won the favor of Egyptian ruler Abdel Nasser, and was awarded a Pakistani diplomatic passport to enable him to travel while the French government engaged in an international manhunt for him.
Ben Bella was elected president in 1963 after Algeria won independence, and embarked on land reform. As he gradually embraced socialist rhetoric, his rule became more autocratic, until he was deposed in 1965 and placed under house arrest for 15 years.
He later won asylum in Switzerland, where he lived until 1990 when he was allowed to return to Algeria.