Middle East: EU visit to Algiers skims surface of the killing fields

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The Independent Online
A European Union delegation, led by Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett, flew into Algiers last night for talks today with politicians and newspaper editors. Algeria say it wants help in a war against `terrorists'. But, reports Steve Crawshaw, the EU wants to keep the conflict at arms length.

More massacres were reported yesterday across the country, in what now passes for Algerian normality. In the rabbit-warren of steep streets and alleyways of the old Casbah district of Algiers, three more people were shot. They are just the latest in a wave of massacres that has taken the lives of more than 1,100 men, women and children in the past three weeks.

Today's talks, by Mr Fatchett and his counterparts from Austria and Luxembourg (the present, future and past holders of the European Union presidency), are intended to show that Europe is getting serious about the problems of Algeria. But Europe has no intention of getting too deeply embroiled.

On the Algerian side, expectations are clear. The authorities want the EU to support what the government insists is a straightforward war with Islamic terrorists. The main front-page headline in the pro-government El Moudjahid newspaper yesterday warned the European troika to "avoid misunderstandings and disillusions". It demanded "more efficient co-operation", and complained of the EU's "chilly attitude" towards "the battle that we have fought for the past six years against barbaric terrorism".

Other commentators hint, by contrast, that the EU might have been tougher. Le Matin newspaper argued that "too many things remain unspoken" in the EU mission, and quoted Mr Fatchett's insistence in a BBC radio interview that, while there was "a need for candour, that's not pointing the finger at anyone in the Algerian government for responsibility". It pointed out: "For Europe, the responsibility for the massacres is not as clear as the authorities suggest."

The EU mission may, if all goes well, provide some seeds of hope. Some Algerians argue that it could pave the way for future, more substantial missions, including perhaps one by a United Nations rapporteur - an idea which the Algerian government brusquely rejected when it was first mooted last year. The authorities' repeated failure to respond adequately to the massacres has led to questions inside and outside Algeria about whether elements within the government or security forces share complicity. In a report published at the end of last year, Amnesty International, which has repeatedly been refused permission to conduct an investigation, argued that the international community had "shunned its responsibilities in the face of a tragedy which takes place in camera".

Tens of thousands of Algerians have died in the past few years. Most of the worst killings take place in the countryside, where massacres have become gruesomely routine. Reports of the massacres are never official, but are reported in the press, on the basis of bonnes sources. Islamic terrorists are always blamed; but they remain invisible, allegedly hunted down and shot. There are no open trials where the voices of the alleged murderers might be heard. Torture and disappearances of those hostile to the government are agreed to be widespread.

Today's talks can be little more than a skimming of the surface of the problem. The ministerial troika will meet the Algerian prime minister and foreign minister, a group of newspaper editors and a group of opposition politicians before flying out again this afternoon. The Europeans hope that a fuller fact-finding mission will follow. The Algerians, by contrast, are more concerned to get the troublesome Europeans on-side, or off their backs.

Paradoxically, the Algerian refusal until now to co-operate with the international community in any way has meant that Algerian complicity may have been overstated rather than understated. Many Algerians agree that violence by the Islamic radicals is a serious problem. But they argue that the government's attempts at cover-up only make the problems worse.

Omar Belhouchet, editor of El Watan newspaper, said that it was wrong to "let the Islamists off the hook". But he called for much greater government openness. "It's a question of democracy. We must make them give freedom of the press. That's important. Le pouvoir [the authorities] must respect press freedom and human rights. I very much hope that things will change."

For the moment, there is little sign of that. On his office desk, Mr Belhouchet has a quotation from Shakespeare: "News fitting to the night, Black, fearful, comfortless and horrible." In Algeria, the quotation seems likely to remain macabrely appropriate.