Algeria to release jailed FIS leaders

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The Independent Online
THE government in Algeria is expected to release jailed leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) before the next round of talks on national reconciliation in a fortnight.

El-Hiwar, the daily newspaper of the FLN, which has ruled Algeria since the war of independence that ended in 1962, said that Kamel Guemmazi, one of the five top FIS officials held at the military prison in Blida, south of Algiers, will be released at the same time as Abdelkadar Hachani, the former chairman of the provisional executive committee of the outlawed party.

In a communique issued at the end of the third stage of the national dialogue earlier this week, President Liamine Zeroual gave an account of the contacts the government has had with Abbasi Madani and Ali Belhadj, FIS leaders who were jailed in June 1991. In January 1992 the army cancelled the elections that the FIS was poised to win. Two trusted lieutenants of the President, including a former head of military intelligence, met the men in Blida to discuss how to bring an end to the bloody insurgency in Algeria.

The President said that Mr Madani sent him two letters last month in which he offered a truce and talks with the regime. However, in one letter he laid down a precondition, which the President said complicated matters. This is reported to be a commitment to release all jailed FIS leaders and activists.

The President revealed that his representatives held a meeting with Mr Madani on 26 August and further talks with him and four other jailed FIS leaders on 30 August and 1 September. He emphasised that the FIS had put out the first feelers, and that this initiative should not be underestimated. Arab commentators say that the two-week rest period is to give time to President Zeroual to persuade hardliners within the regime of the virtues of bringing the FIS back into the fold.

What has permitted the beginning of this dialogue is the emergence of more moderate pragmatic figures within both the government and the FIS.

The FIS overcame its reluctance to distance itself from the activities of the far more militant GIA (Armed Islamic Group), a clandestine group of disaffected Algerians who fought alongside the mujahedin in Afghanistan. The GIA were behind the more violent attacks on Algerians and foreigners, including the assault on the French embassy last month. In July the FIS issued a statement that for the first time publicly attacked the GIA, which sees violent confrontation as the only means to remove the secular government. The FIS is prepared to engage in elections and peaceful political activity.

President Zeroual has felt able to confront the hardliners in the military junta ruling Algeria who oppose any dialogue with the FIS. Known variously as 'the exterminators', or Hizb Fransa (Party of France), these generals argue that repression is essential.

The non-Arabic speaking Berber minority is also opposed to any move to give the FIS a greater role, possibly under a power-sharing arrangement, which would accelerate the process of imposing Islam as the state religion and Arabic as the state language.

President Zeroual is engaged in a high-risk strategy. He is committed to dialogue without any guarantee of a successful outcome. It is unclear to what extent the jailed FIS leaders still command the loyalty of their followers on the street.