Algerian Islamic gunmen defect

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The Independent Online
HOPES ARE rising that an end could be in sight for Algeria's seven-year civil war, after the largest Islamic insurgent body formally declared a truce, and mass defections were reported from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the deadliest guerrilla army still in the field.

The outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) announced last week that its armed wing, the AIS, which has observed an unofficial ceasefire since late 1997, was calling off the fight against the authorities. More surprising than the declaration itself was a strikingly friendly letter to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from the FIS leader, Abassi Madani, expressing "strong support" and urging other guerrilla groups to lay down their arms.

Just possibly, if the newspaper Assahafa is to be believed, that too may be starting to happen. It reported at the weekend that 1,000 GIA members have broken away to join the emerging peace deal, confirming a split in the GIA's ranks.

The developments are a considerable boost for Mr Bouteflika after his hollow election victory on April 24 left him looking like the stooge of the generals who really run Algeria. Six leading opposition candidates withdrew on the eve of the vote in protest at alleged ballot-rigging.

For all the euphoria in the state-owned Algerian press in the past few days, ceasefire and amnesty are only the first steps. The government must now free jailed GIA leaders, end the state of national emergency and throw its full weight behind efforts to establish the fate of thousands of Algerians who have disappeared during the war, which has cost 70,000 lives.

The conflict began when the military cancelled 1992 parliamentary elections which the FIS was certain to win.