Algeria rejects EU terrorism mission

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The Independent Online
Algeria yesterday delivered a stinging rebuff to the European Union, rejecting a proposed visit by European officials which it had earlier seemed ready to accept. Rupert Cornwell reports on a change of mind which further reduces the prospects of outside help in ending the country's savage civil war.

Only 24 hours earlier it seemed the diplomatic impasse had been broken. Appalled and horrified by a conflict which had claimed up to 1,700 lives in the past fortnight alone, the European Union on Tuesday agreed to despatch the political directors of the Luxembourg, British and Austrian foreign ministries to discuss the war, seemingly assured of a go-ahead from Algiers.

Yesterday, however, the plan came to nought. Ahmed Attaf, the Algerian Foreign Minister, told a hastily convened news conference that the EU "troika" visit was "inappropriate", claiming its level was too low, and that the European countries had given no assurance they would join in combating the Islamic "terrorism" which the military regime insists is exclusively responsible for the slaughter. "The delegation is not coming," Mr Attaf said.

In an initial reaction, the British EU Presidency declared it was "surprised and disappointed" at the refusal. But, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook added, the level of the delegation should not be a sticking point and a full- scale ministerial mission could still be arranged.

Europe remained "determined to engage Algeria in dialogue" over the civil war, which has claimed about 75,000 lives since it began in 1992 - and whatever happens, the crisis will be high on the agenda of the next EU foreign ministers' meeting on 26 January, which had hoped to hear a report from the three political directors.

But there was no disguising the shock in Brussels and London over what has happened. Though contacts are continuing, and the British ambassador in Algiers has separately requested to visit the scenes of recent massacres in the west of the country, the Europeans appear once again to have underestimated the pride and prickliness of the Algerians.

"What is on offer today is an EU delegation made up of foreign ministry directors," Mr Attaf explained, while Algeria was being asked to provide ministers for them to meet. This was "not appropriate" to the important matters that could have been discussed.

He accused European governments of backtracking on "a commitment" to help combat terrorism. There had been "reservations and hesitations" on this point, "far from what we wish". In fact, what Algeria demands is a crackdown by EU states on Islamic fundamentalists in exile.

France, the former colonial power, is reluctant to take that step for fear of radicalising its large immigrant Algerian community.

To underline their displeasure, the Algerian authorities have arrested a senior leader of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) 48 hours after the publication of interviews with him in two French newspapers.

Abdelkader Hachani, ranking third in the FIS hierarchy, had been freed in July after five years in jail, a move which seemed to signal the willingness of the regime to hold talks with the rebels. With the two top figures in the party already imprisoned, it was Mr Hachani who led the FIS to an overwhelming victory in the first round of general elections in late 1991. Their subsequent cancellation detonated the war which has continued, ever bloodier, to this day.