Algerian Hijack: France supplies covert military aid to regime

The Deals
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France has been giving covert military support to the Algerian regime for months. Helicopters, night-sight technology for aerial surveillance of guerrilla hide-outs and other equipment has been sent to the Algerian army, some aboard French militar y flights which reportedly make regular flights in the early hoursinto Algiers airport where Muslim gunmen took over the Air France flight three days ago.

According to well-placed Algerian sources, the son of a French government minister is involved. He is said to run a private security company outside Paris which has legally sold millions of francs of equipment to the Algerian security police. "Everyone knows about this trade - but no one will talk about it," the source said.

French military intelligence officers carry on a fruitful relationship with their Algerian opposite numbers. French spy agencies monitor all Algerian radio traffic round the clock, much of it from a ship bristling with communications antennae off the coast of France's former African colony.

Code-numbered A646 Berry, the white-painted, former cargo vessel is crewed by members of the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure, who listen day and night to the reports of Algerian commanders in the Lakhdaria mountains and the "Bled'', the Algerian outback where the French military once fought the men they are now trying to help.

The work of the "Berry'' is supplemented by radio signals picked up aboard French air force aircraft flying along the Algerian coast, and by intelligence officers inside the heavily guarded French embassy in Algiers, who monitor Algerian police airwaves during "anti-terrorist'' attacks. France has acknowledged selling nine Ecureuil helicopters to the Algerian government but has claimed that the machines were sent to Algeria for "civil" purposes - thereby avoiding statutory investigation by the French inter-ministerial commission for the inspection of military exports. But military sources say helicopters have only to be equipped with rockets and night-sight equipment, also provided by France, to become front-line equipment in the anti-guerrilla struggle.

For more than a year, Muslim opponents of the regime have accused France of aiding the Algerian military government which, almost three years ago, cancelled a second round of elections the Islamic Salvation Front was certain to win. Initial French hesitation over the annulment of the poll turned into tacit support for the regime - especially from the French interior minister, Charles Pasqua - once the implications of an Islamic takeover in Algeria became apparent. Algeria owes France almost £4bn; an Islamic republic might send 300,000 Francophone Algerians fleeing across the Mediterranean in the hope of sanctuary.

As many as 30,000 Algerians may have been killed in the civil war. Islamist groups have not hesitated to torture and decapitate hundreds of supporters of the government but Amnesty International has logged hundreds of extra-judicial killings, along with systematic torture of women and men by the Algerian security forces.

Mr Pasqua has been the least reticent French minister in supporting the regime, largely accepting the junta's thesis that Europe must join in a war against "international Islamic terrorism". On Christmas Eve, France began to understand the cost of such apolicy.