Taking tea and talking terror in Algeria as the votes are counted

Robert Fisk reports from Algiers, where the government claimed a resounding victory in a referendum to bar political parties based on religion - part of an attempt to end an Islamic fundamentalist rebellion which has claimed 60,000 lives
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The Independent Online
T hey were tales to chill the blood. The old Algiers apartment was friendly enough, the French tiles on the floor, the chandeliers, the French accents a reminder that this is - or was - part of the West. But the stories came from a world of horror.

There were those best friends at school whose initial tragedy we had heard before. One had become an Islamist, the other a policeman. Both lived in the same run-down apartment block in the Ducdecart district. After the Islamists were outlawed in 1992, the youth who had chosen the path of violence had murdered his best friend, the policeman. Now we heard of the family's response. "The father of the policeman took his revenge," our friend said. "He shot dead the mother of the Islamist boy."

No one in the room moved. The story had come up during a long conversation on the politics of Algeria, as casually as the killing itself. Our friend - a businessman who travels the length and breadth of Algeria - shrugged his shoulders. "You must realise that there is a great reglement de contes, a settling of accounts," he said. "You can offer to become a policeman when you want and you'll be given a gun. Everyone has guns now if they want them."

Tea was served, in delicate china cups, family photographs stood on the sideboard. The old lady spoke now, in genteel, old- fashioned French. Yes, she agreed with our friend. She knew of a little reglement herself. "There was a young man near our house - married with six children - and he raped a young girl. Well, the family wanted its revenge and some men came to the home of the father of the young man, at night.

"The men asked the father to hand over his son ... He refused. So they kidnapped him and left the son. And they cut the father's throat. That was their revenge."

Outside, plain-clothes cops were watching the street from their car. The traffic was light - Friday being the Muslim sabbath - but everyone remembered what had happened here on Thursday, a couple of hours after voting began for the constitutional referendum. "We heard a woman scream and when we looked out there must have been 100 policemen - plain-clothes and in uniform - running down towards the post office. A terrorist in a Peugeot 205 had opened fire there - I don't know what at - but the police riddled the car with bullets. He was killed."

So that was the reason for the blood-soaked car which an Algerian claimed to have seen downtown on Thursday morning. Another family had heard the shooting. They spent the day watching the local polling booth from their apartment window. "We saw 10 people come to vote and then in the evening, the government told us 80 per cent of the electorate went out to vote," a woman said. "And the government claimed a resounding victory - 85.5 per cent of the votes cast - that will prevent parties using Islam as an election platform, and increase the powers of the Algerian president."

The businessman shrugged again. "The more people get killed, the more the people will weep. Things are coming apart." Then his wife leant forward. "More tea?" she asked.