As the slaughter continues, writes Steve Crawshaw, the EU is cautiously stirring to act
BACK IN 1991, things sounded very different. As the wars in Yugoslavia began - with the now almost-forgotten invasion of Slovenia, a war that was over as soon as it had begun - European leaders boasted of the positive role that they would play. This, they declared, was "the hour of Europe".

European leaders organised a series of talks and troika missions (involving representatives of the past, present and future incumbents of the EU presidency). The missions achieved little or nothing. Eventually, looking faintly shamefaced, the EU crawled off the Yugoslav stage, leaving the United Nations and then the United States to negotiate a sort of settlement, more than four years later.

This time, there is more humility in the European approach. The Algerian crisis has been a long time brewing. The civilian massacres have steadily increased. But European diplomats have until now been wary about putting their heads above the parapet - precisely because they knew that there was little they could do. Diplomats have agonised behind closed doors, but there was general agreement that it would be unproductive to mouth off while having no serious plans about what to do next.

Algeria itself made plain that it loathed the idea of any outside interference. A suggestion by the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, that the UN should play a mediating role was brusquely rejected. European and UN diplomats alike knew that, without Algeria's co-operation, no outside involvement was possible. And yet, Algeria's reluctance to co-operate also reflected part of the problem. Most observers now believe that parts of the government share complicity for some of the massacres, which are always blamed on Islamic extremists.

The renewed bloodshed in the past fortnight incudes some of the most horrific slaughter yet: another 55 people, several children among them, were yesterday reported to have died in the latest grisly series of killings across the country. Finally, something snapped: politicians began to feel that something - anything - must be done. Klaus Kinkel, the German foreign minister, seems to have "sat in the bath and got seized with the idea", in the words of one European diplomat. Mr Kinkel wrote to Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, suggesting that Britain, which holds the presidency of the EU for the next six months, could launch discussions on sending an EU mission.

Mr Cook quickly picked up the Kinkel baton, and turned it into a British initiative. A planning meeting in Brussels last week agreed to send a troika mission of senior civil servants from Luxembourg (which held the presidency till last month), the UK and Austria (which takes on the presidency in July).

After some hesitation, Algeria agreed to admit an EU mission, though the nature of that mission remains unclear - and Algerian diplomats are still deeply wary. At last week's meeting, Germany pressed especially to examine "the ways that terrorism can be dealt with", while Britain sought to emphasise the humanitarian plight of the victims. Germany was worried that any mission would have its hands tied, unless it put down markers about inquiring into the nature of the violence. Britain feared that Algeria would refuse to allow anybody in at all, if the government thought its own behaviour might come under the microscope.

France, the former colonial power, can play a key role. But it can also play a blocking role, since it has traditionally been unwilling to put its relations with the Algerian government under strain. One reason why even half-hearted action has been delayed so long is because of a widespread perception that France opposed any hint of European interference in Algerian affairs.

At last week's Brussels meeting, there were "no disagreements as such" according to European diplomats. "But they couldn't easily reach a common point of view. As usual, the British were pragmatic. They said: 'What does this really mean?'." A further meeting will be held on Tuesday to "flesh out" existing proposals.

The purpose of the mission is phrased in comfortingly woolly terms - "to convey the concern of the European Union on the massacres and pursue a continuous dialogue with the Algerian authorities on ways to end the killings and provide support for the victims". British officials emphasise that they wish to "move away from megaphone diplomacy", and that the mission, which is likely to take place at the end of this month, is "not a commission of inquiry". Mr Kinkel puts things differently, saying that "this is of course a fact-finding mission".

Some at the United Nations still hope that UN rapporteurs - on torture and on extrajudicial executions - might be allowed in, though British officials regard that as "very unlikely".

In some respects, the British emphasis on "humanitarian aid" to victims has echoes of the conflict in Bosnia, when sharp contradictions arose between the two ways of dealing with the Bosnian Serb authorities. The Serbs were quasi-partners in permitting distribution of aid to the needy; and they were also responsible for some of the worst atrocities, as well as for making people both homeless and hungry. Britain was wary of taking a tough stance against them, for fear that this would jeopardise the distribution of aid to areas where the Serbs could control access. There is the same wariness about pointing fingers today.

In many respects, the situation in Algeria is more complex than Bosnia ever was. Unlike the Bosnian Serb authority, the Algerian government is internationally recognised, and needs to be treated with respect. The problem of Islamic violence is real, even if widespread violence by security forces is now also real.

An international intervention force in Bosnia would have been welcomed by many at an early stage, including the Bosnian government (at a time when the international community refused to get involved). But such a possibility in Algeria is almost unthinkable. For the moment, the prospects of any real improvement seem vanishingly small.

8 Additional reporting by Gidon Freeman