Algeria ready to allow EU inquiry into massacres

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The European Union last night accelerated plans for a fact-finding mission to Algeria, Rupert Cornwell reports, amid signs that Algiers may be softening its previous flat refusal of an outside inquiry into the massacres.

#As the slaughter of civilians continued, Middle East experts met in Brussels yesterday to discuss a possible "troika" mission of senior officials from Luxembourg, Britain and Austria - the previous, present and future holders of the EU Presidency - with the German foreign minister claiming that Algiers had already given a "positive reaction" to the proposal.

In London, meanwhile, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said Europe must establish how it could help in finding a way to end the bloodshed, which has taken at least 1,000 lives in the first 10 days of the holy month of Ramadan alone, and perhaps 70,000 or more since the civil war between the regime and Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas began in 1992.

Until yesterday, there was scant sign that Algiers would give its blessing, essential for any international initiative to get off the ground. Once again on Wednesday, the authorities issued a "categorical rejection of any attempt to interfere in its internal affairs", saying an investigation would only plant doubts over the source of terrorism, "a stance Algeria condemns and absolutely rejects".

But there are now hints it could countenance a less clear cut step. Apart from anything agreed with the EU, some form of UN mission remains possible while - according to officials in Ottawa yesterday - the military regime is willing to receive a Canadian envoy who would urge the Algerian government to be more open about the massacres. Allegations are ever more frequent that some of these took place with the passive connivance, if not active complicity, of the security forces.

Such suggestions, however, only infuriate the Algerian government, which insists the carnage is exclusively the work of the fundamentalists, the most ferocious group of which is the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group. The GIA is believed to be behind the unprecedented weekend slaughter in the western Relizane province, which took a reported 400 lives, and for three subsequent attacks which left 62 dead.

The army is conducting a massive search operation in the region, but with no word of real success. So great is the human devastation that the Algerian Government announced it is sending 50 tonnes of food, tents and blankets to survivors, "the victims of collective massacres by criminal groups of defenceless civilian populations".

In the end, perhaps, it may be humanitarian work that gives outsiders a foot in the Algerian door.