Algerian rebels' peace call shifts blame for slaughter

Two days after the latest massacre in Algeria which killed 200 civilians, the country's largest Islamic insurgent group has urged its followers to observe a truce from 1 October. Rupert Cornwell asks if is this offers real hope that the carnage could soon end - or is it just a cynical effort to shift the blame ?
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The olive branch, if such it is, came in the form of a two-page communique signed by Madani Mezerag, the senior commander of the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the military wing of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and published across the front pages of state-controlled Algerian newspapers yesterday.

Disassociating itself from the wave of butchery that for months now has terrorised Algiers and the surrounding countryside, the IAS leader pinned the blame squarely on the rival Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Calling on other groups as well to lay down their arms, it vowed "to expose the enemy" behind the killings, and "isolate the criminal remnants of the perverse GIA extremists, and those who hide behind them".

The attention in the official media is a sign the military regime of President Liamine Zeroual is taking the gambit seriously - and also indirectly confirms that the government has been negotiating secretly with its opponents. The FIS, which was poised to win the 1992 elections whose cancellation detonated five years of savagery in which 60,000 people may have died.

If the authorship of the communique is not in doubt, its impact is questionable. The independent daily El Watan, which only reported the document on its third page, doubted the AIS commander could influence the groups nominally under his authority, let alone the GIA, whose powerbase is Algiers and its hinterland where the bloodiest slaughters have occurred.

In an earlier gesture of reconcilation, the government in July released the FIS deputy leader Abassi Madani - only to see the brutality plumb unprecedented depths. Now there are increasing signs that, as part of a power struggle within the regime, factions of the security forces are colluding with the terrorists.

Yesterday an FIS leader in Denmark accused the Algerian authorities of sponsoring the slaughter then blaming Islamic militants. Indeed, despite assurances from the government that the insurgency was all but stamped out, several massacres have taken place almost in earshot of nearby police and army barracks. But, despite calls for outside investigators be sent to find out what is really happening in Algeria, the international community watches, wrings its hands, and heeds President Zeroual's warning not to interfere. "A solution to this conflict must come from the Algerians themselves," the Foreign Office said last night. Or, as the Foreign Minister of France, Algeria's former colonial power, recently said: "We cannot do nothing. But what can we do ?"