Leader of banned Islamic group shot dead in Algeria

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In a severe blow to Algeria's fragile peace process, an unknown gunman shot dead a leader of the banned Islamic Salvation Front yesterday as he entered his dentist's office in Algiers. Abdelkader Hachani, the FIS' third-ranking figure and a key moderate, was hit in the head and stomach. He was still alive on his way to hospital, but doctors said he had lost too much blood to be saved.

In a severe blow to Algeria's fragile peace process, an unknown gunman shot dead a leader of the banned Islamic Salvation Front yesterday as he entered his dentist's office in Algiers. Abdelkader Hachani, the FIS' third-ranking figure and a key moderate, was hit in the head and stomach. He was still alive on his way to hospital, but doctors said he had lost too much blood to be saved.

A terse statement on national radio stated 42-year-old Hachani had "succumbed to his wounds". But the potential repercussions of the assassination - the first of an FIS leader since the movement's creation in 1989 - are huge.

"Each time we see a ray of hope, a new tragedy befalls the country," said Abdelaziz Belkhadem, a former Parliamentary Speaker and close friend of the President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

No one immediately claimed reponsibility for the murder, and old suspicions resurfaced.

One was that Mr Hachani had been killed by the GIA, the ultra-hardline fundamentalist group opposed to the 1997 ceasefire called by the FIS and its military wing the AIS.

Another is that he has fallen victim to factional rivalry within the FIS, and a third theory is blaming the killing on hardliners in the army opposed to Mr Bouteflika's overtures and this year's partial amnesty to insurgents.

Hachani was known to have distanced himself from the president's plan for civil concord, amnestying Islamic militants who renounce violence and have not committed rape, murder, or planted bombs.

He became a major public figure in December 1991, after the imprisonment of the two top officials of the FIS, Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, when he led the party to win 188 of the 231 seats at stake in the legislative elections, virtually guaranteeing themselves power.

But the army, then as now the ultimate arbiter of Algerian affairs, stepped in to cancel the second round scheduled for January 1992, plunging the country into a civil war between government forces and Islamic radicals which has taken more than 100,000 lives.

Hachani was arrested on charges of inciting rebellion and freed only in July 1997. But recently his faith in the reforms of President Bouteflika had begun to wane, and last month he called for a summit summit of all interested parties to end the violence.

After a lull since last month, the killers have once more been about their business. In the past week 36 people - many of them women and children - have died in a series of attacks.

Obituary: Abdelkader Hachani

ABDELKADER HACHANI was that rarity in tragic and turbulent modern Algeria: a politician to his fingertips, who despite his commitment to fundamentalist Islam, never wavered from the conviction that the movement must come to power through the ballot box rather than the gun.

That belief was all the more remarkable in that eight years ago he led his Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) to within touching distance of that goal - before the country's military cancelled the second round of parliamentary elections due in January 1992, threw him in prison, and unleashed the savage civil conflict which has since taken more than 100,000 lives.

Hachani's life was a cameo of Algeria's modern history, from his birth during the independence war against France to his death at the hands of an unknown gunman this week. He was the son of Brahim Hachani, a prominent member of the ALN, the National Liberation Army whose political wing, the FLN, ruled the country from 1962 until the army took control in 1992. After studying engineering at Constantine University, Abdelkader Hachani worked in the petrochemicals division of Sonatrach, the state oil and gas company which, with the rise of Opec, would become a force in international energy politics.

But dissatisfaction at the failure of the FNL to live up to its socialist promises, and at the corruption and cronyism which flourished under a one-party system, drove Hachani to Islamism, in his eyes the last, best hope of rescuing his country. Although he was one of the FIS's 35 founder members in 1989, he hardly fitted the West's stock image of the fire-breathing fundamentalist zealot. He was a quiet, courteous man, as fluent in French as in Arabic, whose preference was for listening, rather than lecturing.

After 1989 the FIS grew rapidly, defying every attempt by the authorities to blunt its appeal by creating a façade of multi-party democracy, clamping down on its activities in the mosques - and finally, in summer 1991, by arresting its two most senior officials, Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj. Thus it fell to Hachani, the movement's thirdranking figure, to lead the FIS into the December elections.

After capturing 188 of the 231 seats decided in the first round, the FIS was set for massive outright victory in the run-off scheduled for the following January. But the run-off never happened. The elections were cancelled by the military, the FIS was outlawed and Hachani jailed on charges of fomenting treason. He was only released in summer 1997, as the authorities at last realised that there was no alternative to some form of accommodation with moderate Islam.

The pattern was thus set for the last two years of Hachani's life. Though rarely seen in public, and constantly watched - and not infrequently harassed by the police - he was believed to be an important conduit between the FIS and the military authorities, and instrumental in securing the ceasefire with the movement's armed wing, the AIS, in late 1997.

However, Hachani believed that the latest peace proposals of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, elected in April this year, did not go far enough to secure the national reconciliation to which he was committed. The partial amnesty for insurgents anounced in June should, he argued, have been accompanied by a lifting of the ban on the FIS and a summit meeting of all parties to the conflict: the old political establishment, the Islamists and the military.

As a result, Hachani was left perilously exposed. Regarded as an extremist by hard-line éradicateurs within the military, he was seen as a collaborator by the radical GIA faction which has continued the armed struggle. Even within the FIS, he was by the end at odds with Madani and with Rabah Kebir, the movement's exile leader, both of whom supported the Bouteflika plan. Any one of these interests could have been behind the death of a man widely viewed as a key to ending Algeria's long agony.

Abdelkader Hachani, engineer and politician: born 1956; married; died Algiers 22 November 1999.

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