Algeria uses emergency law to fight Islamic group

THERE WAS seldom any doubt that the Algerian authorities would extend the state of emergency. It has been a bloody year for the forces of law and order. More than 250 members of the state security forces have been killed in the continuing efforts to crush the opposition movements campaigning under the banner of Islam. And recent clashes have demonstrated that the battle is far from over.

So the state of emergency, due to have ended today, has been duly extended. It was government fears of the strength of support for the Islamic movement that led to the promulgation of the emergency laws. And it is government worries about the increasingly militant Islamic challenge to its rule that have led to their extension.

A year ago, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win the first general elections since the dissolution of the one-party state. The authorities took fright, cancelled the elections and the electoral law, and introduced a series of laws limiting press and other freedoms. FIS extremists turned from the ballot to the bullet. The army-backed leadership in Algeria has made some headway in curbing the influence of the more extreme Islamic elements, but has not eradicated them. Political violence has not ceased.

The FIS has also come out in support of armed struggle against the regime. In a communique issued in December, the imprisoned deputy head of the FIS, Ali Belhadj, called on the army to desert and the people to rise up against their rulers. He twice said that if free he would join Abdelkader Chebouti, the top leader of the Islamic fighters, to 'fight against this regime, which has refused all peaceful political solutions'.

The proclamation of the state of emergency a year ago reduced what was a popular protest against social and economic problems and political corruption into a problem of law and order. The reaction of the more extreme Islamic militants has, to some extent, vindicated the government's action - but the social and economic problems remain. The population, now 26 million, is soaring. Half are under 16. Unemployment and underemployment levels are high. The foreign debt is dollars 30bn ( pounds 20.7bn).

The justification given for the extension of the emergency regulations was the spectre of increased support for Islamic groups from abroad. As a result, Algeria has reduced its diplomatic presence in Iran to low level.

In December, emergency regulations were tightened when curfews were imposed on large parts of Algeria. About half the population has to be indoors from 10.30pm to 5am. The state of emergency has been extended for an unlimited period. Last month Ali Kafi, head of the country's collective presidency, known as the High Council of State - and therefore, in effect, head of state - repeated that the government was committed to 'the democratic option'. But he emphasised that 'we exclude from this step all those who practise or support violence to accede to power'.

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