Algeria terror touches the world

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The latest horrors perpetrated against the civilians of Algeria - at least 600 men, women and children slaughtered in less than a week - have finally provoked calls for an international inquiry from the US as well as Europe. But as our Middle East Correspondent Robert Fisk reports, the massacres will go on, as Algeria's military-backed government ignores the outside world.

Given the lethargy - the near-criminal silence - of the West, Washington's demand for an international enquiry into the New Year massacres must have shocked even Algeria's normally unperturbable generals. Only a few weeks ago, the departing US ambassador to Algiers claimed that President Liamine Zeroual was on "the right track" in his ruthless war against the government's armed opponents. But the carefully crafted appeal for an enquiry shows that even the US State Department no longer believes that the Algerian bloodbath can be attributed only to 'Islamists'.

As Washington called for an investigation into Algeria's human rights abuses as well as the massacres - a sure sign of its concern at the torture now routinely practiced by the country's state security police - there came news of yet another mass killing in western Algeria and on a bus outside the capital. Most of the weekend dead - including, as always, women and children - were burned alive in three villages; in last week's slaughter in four villages near the town of Relizane, local newspapers report that 412 civilians were decapitated or disembowelled. As usual in Algeria, the killers had chosen the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to launch a new wave of barbarity.

Ironically, there seems little doubt that the Relizane murders were indeed the work of the extreme Islamic Armed Group (GIA). The villagers at Ouled Sahnine, Kherarba, El Abadel and Ouled Tayeb were themselves Islamists and had voted in the 1991 elections for the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) whose armed wing - the Islamic Salvation Army (ISA) - declared a ceasefire last October. In a series of tracts distributed in the area, the GIA warned that it was moving into western Algeria, and even the local military commander, General Kamel Abderahmane, warned the inhabitants to join pro-government militias in order to defend themselves.

"People must either arm or take refuge in the towns," he said. "The state does not have the means to put a soldier outside every front door." That, it seems, was the extent of the army's 'protection'. On the face of it, the Relizane massacres, which the government says left "only" 78 dead, appear to be the GIA's revenge for the villagers' loyalty to the rival ISA. In any event, the killers - who have hitherto used knives, wire and portable guillotines to butcher civilians - added yet another grotesque feature to their latest atrocity: whole families were herded into 'killing rooms' to have their throats cut, with shovels as well as knives. One survivor awoke amid the blood of his relatives to find more than 50 corpses in a single house.

"We would like to see the government do more to protect its civilians while respecting the rule of law," the US State Department spokesman James Rubin said. "We would like to see an international enquiry get to the bottom of it." Mr Rubin added that the United States "condemned the massacres and bombing in Algeria" and wanted non-governmental organisations to conduct an investigation. The Algerian authorities, he added, had already agreed to allow a UN envoy to conduct a "fact-finding" mission.

But what can the envoy do? He will need government protection to enter the killing fields of Algeria - and no-one will speak freely to him in the presence of policemen. Furthermore, the Algerian government's total refusal to countenance any form of outside involvement suggests that the latest European gestures of concern will prove useless.

A demand from France - which killed a million Algerians during the 1954- 62 war - that the government must protect its own people, is likely to fall on deaf ears. An EU statement expressed only "deep concern" at the situation.

In Dublin, the Irish foreign minister David Andrews, who after a 24-hour visit to Algiers last month urged foreigners to stop condemning Algeria and described President (and ex-general) Zeroual as "a fine man, dedicated, a strong decent man," yesterday (Tue) substantially changed his line.

The Algerian government, he now said, was guilty of "committing atrocities and human rights transgressions." The Algerian government was not democratic but the massacres had to be brought to an end. It is a pious hope - and one that will, almost certainly, go unfulfilled.

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