Glimmer of hope as Algiers proposes visit to London

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The Independent Online
The European Union is pinning what tiny hope it has of fostering a return to peace in Algeria on a visit to London by the Foreign Minister, Ahmed Attaf. Such, however, is the military regime's distrust of foreign intervention that no date for the meeting has yet been decided.

Assessing last week's unavailing "troika" ministerial mission, EU foreign ministers doggedly welcomed it yesterday as a first step towards an "extensive dialogue" with Algiers. In the next breath, however, they criticised Algeria's refusal to accept offers of humanitarian aid, and its resistance to a UN fact-finding team.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, who chaired the meeting in Britain's capacity as current EU President, was no less trenchant afterwards: Europe would do everything it could to help end the suffering of the Algerian people, Mr Cook declared, "but our willingness to help needs to be met by a willingness from the Algerian government to accept the help we are offering".

Privately, the EU accepts it can do next to nothing in Algeria without the co-operation of the government there. It recognises that even the EU-Algeria association agreement currently under negotiation, and which contains a human rights cause, offers only the most marginal leverage for an initiative to stop the murderous civil war which has claimed 75,000 lives since it began in 1992.

In a further gesture, the ministers promised to discuss Algerian complaints that some EU countries were sheltering terrorists and sympathisers of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the organisation believed to be behind most of the massacres. Mr Cook said asylum seekers with terrorist links were not been accepted in Britain and since 1996 seven Algerians had been extradited for that very reason.

The EU was also moving towards endorsing an action plan to tackle illegal immigration by Iraqi Kurds, shipped from Turkey into Italy and Greece by criminal smuggling groups. As 1,000 Kurds, mostly resident in Germany, staged a noisy demonstration on the streets outside, chanting: "Yesterday Vietnam, today Kurdistan," foreign ministers agreed on the need to step up cooperation on border policing, stiffen punishment for the smugglers and iron out inconsistencies in asylum laws.

Speaking last might after addressing European Parliamentarians, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said the affair showed how Britain had been right not to adhere the Schengen agreement and keep its own border controls.

Forty-seven Algerians, most of them villagers in remote areas, were killed in massacres in the past few days, Algerian newspapers said yesterday.

In the worst massacre since Friday, seven children, five women and eight men were killed by having their throats slashed by about 20 attackers at the weekend in Tiaret province, 230km south-west of Algiers.

Algerian newspapers gave details of the carnage on the 27th night of Ramadan. Algerian security forces had announced the massacre earlier and blamed Muslim rebels but given no details.