Algeria juggles arithmetic of death: The true number of killings is hard to determine, writes Robert Fisk in Algiers

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The Independent Online
WITHIN the steel-grilled office of Agence France-Presse, the French news agency, in the very heart of old Algiers, the statistics are pinned to the wall. A recent total shows 243 security forces dead, along with 881 Islamists and 335 civilians - with an overall official death-toll of around 3,000. Government courts have condemned hundreds of Islamists to death; 212 in Algiers, 64 in Oran, 37 in Constantine. Penned in each day are those individual killings that agency journalists are able to keep track of.

'Assassinats', it says in red ink. '16th March, 1993 . . . Djilalli Liabes, former minister of education . . . shot outside his home in Kouba, 17 March, 1993 . . . Laadi Flici, doctor, writer, member of national consultative council . . . 28 December 1993 . . . Youcef Sebti, poet, writer, Francophone, professor, killed by unkown men . . .'

Every day, without exception, the list increases. On Thursday morning, an Algerian newspaper, in a small back-page obituary, announced the 'tragic death' of Yahia Bouguettaya, vice-president of the Algerian Judo Federation, the only clue to his demise an increasingly familiar phrase; he was, said the obituary, the victim of a 'cowardly assassination'.

The irony of those words cannot be lost on the old FLN regime's supporters who are being slaughtered in such numbers. In the old French cemetery in Algiers are the graves of hundreds of French pieds noirs shot by the FLN between 1954 and 1962. On each grave, it announces the occupant was 'lachement assassine' - victim of a 'cowardly' assassination.

But where can you find accurate statistics? The Algiers municipality authorities say they cannot break up the statistics for burial in the city. But their figures for interments in the capital - from both natural and violent causes - show an astonishing increase, from 4,627 in 1992 to 5,838 last year.

Since there were no epidemics in Algiers, it might be reasonable to suppose that most of the 1,211 increase in mortalities were violent deaths. Yet if this is true, then the overall toll of assassinations and death 'in combat' (by all sides) must be at least double this figure for 1993 alone. In other words, the true fatalities of the conflict may number closer to 5,000 or even 6,000 since the start of 1992.

It was a problem journalists faced in Beirut at the start of the 1975-90 civil war. Kidnap victims were sometimes found dead - as Sheikh Mohamed Bouslimani was, in January, two months after his abduction - but often disappeared for ever. There are still kidnapped Algerians unaccounted for more than a year after their disappearance.

Thursday's edition of the Algiers paper El Watan contained four separate news items recording 10 killings throughout the country: Bouguettaya's assassination in Algiers, the murder of Mohamed Touali - an Ittihad party official in Constantine who was taken from his home by armed men and whose mutilated and decapitated torso was found some hours later - along with a 55-year-old ex-FLN man murdered in Chekfa and seven 'Islamists' allegedly killed in a gun battle with police.

At the rate of 10 dead a day - and these are just the killings that find their way into the papers - then Algeria could be experiencing a minimum of 300 violent deaths a month, or 3,600 a year, a statistic that would make sense of the 6,000 projection. A particularly bloody week - from 10 January to 17 January this year, which left 250 dead - would make this even higher.

The authorities refuse to accept this is a civil war. For them, it is a war against 'terrorism'. The armed Islamic opposition also insist this is not a civil war. It is, they claim, a war of 'counter-violence' against the government. Without a miracle, however, the word 'war' is likely to become common parlance in the not too distant future.