As Algerian civil war intensifies, world takes notice U.S., Canadian, Arab, European, U.N. officials want to look into violence

January 12, 1998|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LONDON -- One of the veterans of Algeria's war of liberation, known as Commandant Ezzedine, rejects the idea that there are "moderate" Islamic fundamentalists.

"The only difference between the hard men and the moderates is that one group wants to eat us in mechoui [grilled] and the other prefers us in tajine [stewed]," he says.

This might seem a bit of black humor, but there is a grim near-literalness in the remark, made to the French writer and documentary filmmaker Bernard-Henri Levy in Algiers, Algeria, recently.

For in the remote, mountainous region of western Algeria, hundreds of people have been burned alive in their homes by Islamic extremists in recent days, according to the Algerian media. During the weekend, the killings spread back to the area around Algiers, where they were rife last fall, with 50 people killed in four attacks.

One of the most violent civil wars of modern times is intensifying, with more than 1,000 people killed in the past two weeks and a shocked international community finally being roused to try to intervene to stop the bloodshed.

Familiar reports

From the Algerian west have come reports all too familiar from the killings that occurred earlier close to Algiers: People hacked to death with axes. Throats slit with knives. A fetus cut out of a pregnant woman and killed.

The United States, the European Union, Canada and the United Nations commissioner for human rights have been galvanized to demand the right to send in representatives to discuss with Algerian authorities what can be done to put a stop to this.

The U.S. call for an international inquiry drew a swift rebuff from the Algerians, who have long rejected outside intervention and are sensitive to allegations that their security forces either have participated in some of the massacres or turned a blind eye.

The Observer newspaper in London reported yesterday that two former Algerian police officers, seeking asylum in Britain, say they were forced by their superiors to take part in the torture and killing of civilians. They said special forces disguised as Islamic extremists with beards and baggy trousers killed entire families in nighttime attacks.

In the past, the Algerians have spurned intervention by friendly Arab governments, which no longer even try to influence them.

But the Algerians, not entirely immune to the growing international pressures, finally have agreed that the European Union in the coming week can send to Algiers a delegation, consisting of one representative each from Britain, which holds the European Union presidency; Luxembourg, the last presidency holder, and Austria, which will assume that position in July.

In addition, Canadian and Arab League envoys are scheduled for separate visits to Algiers today.

However, the Algerians insisted that only civil servants, rather than government ministers, would be admitted, and said they would be limited to talking to government officials. The chances of such missions achieving much, beyond arranging humanitarian aid, appear to be remote.

The Algerian civil war erupted six years ago after the country's military-led government lost the first round of elections to Islamic parties and then canceled the second round to stave off defeat and declared a state of emergency.

Two armed groups, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS by its French initials) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), since then have waged a war that has spread from Algiers to its surrounding towns and now to the remote west.

Peak during Ramadan

The killing always is intense during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and a sacred period of fasting from dawn to dusk. But it has reached unprecedented levels during the current Ramadan, which began in late December.

The French are delighted that the Algerians have agreed to meet with a European Union delegation that does not include French representatives. As the former colonial power in Algeria, France is not trusted by the Algerians.

"It is good that Europe can speak to the Algerians without a French initiative," one official in Paris said in a telephone interview. "They are very touchy about what we say."

In 1995 and 1996, Algerian terrorism spread to France, and the French are deeply concerned about a possible resumption. Its ++ security forces have been increased and have been on a high state of alert at railway and subway stations, airports, museums, department stores and other sensitive locations since the last wave of terrorist bombings occurred.

Pub Date: 1/12/98

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