Algeria endorses President's plan to end seven-year civil war

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AN OVERWHELMING public endorsement of his strategy to end Algeria's seven-year civil war has given President Abdelaziz Bouteflika a resounding mandate to embark on a wider, root-and-branch reform of the country.

The full results of Thursday's referendum showed yesterday that over 85 per cent of Algerians had cast their vote. Of these almost 99 per cent had backed the President's proposals, which are centred on a broad amnesty for Islamic insurgents who have opposed the government - though not for those responsible for the atrocities perpetrated in the conflict, which has left more than 100,000 people killed since 1992. The outcome was immediately welcomed by Mr Bouteflika's supporters in Algeria and abroad. Hubert Vedrine, Foreign Minister of Algeria's former colonial ruler, France, declared it an "expression of the immense expectations of the Algerian people", which would only reinforce the President's authority.

Last night, Mr Bouteflika was due to announce a new government intended to implement his plans to reduce corruption, revive the economy and restore popular trust in the state.

But the crucial, unanswered question concerns the attitude of the military, supreme arbiters of power in Algeria since independence in 1962. The army has hitherto severely circumscribed presidents' freedom of action. But Mr Bouteflika has warned he will resign if prevented from exercising the powers assigned to him by the constitution.

Doubts about the military's reaction explain the cool response to the referendum result from the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which was poised to win the 1992 general election. The poll's cancellation triggered the war with the radical guerrilla groups. "Will the military support the option chosen by the majority?" asked the FIS leader, Abdelkader Hachani, voicing widespread fears that even now the generals - informally but universally known as le pouvoir - will attempt to thwart the popular will.

Most analysts, however, believe that Mr Bouteflika's position has been greatly strengthened and that any move against him would risk plunging the country into a renewed cycle of violence. As it is, the violence continues, albeit at a much slower pace. About 250 people have died since 1 August, mostly in the countryside, far from the big towns.