Algerian rebels mark Ramadan in blood

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The Independent Online

Middle East Correspondent

Is Algeria about to suffer another bloody Ramadan? Each year, the armed Islamist opposition promises a holy month of slaughter, and already this week a massive car bomb has exploded in the provincial city of Blida, 32 miles south of Algiers, killing five civilians and wounding 30 others. All the dead were residents of a businessman's hotel; two of the wounded were 18-month-old babies. And Ramadan is three days away.

Last week, too, saw a suicide bomb attack against the city hall at Larbaatache, 20 miles from the capital, which killed the bomber - who was driving a lorry packed with explosives - and a civilian. Car- and truck- bombs have now become a signature of the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) which has been at war with the Algerian government since the suspension of parliamentary elections just over four years ago. On 12 December, one of the most devastating attacks - a car-bomb explosion in the Algiers suburb of Ain Naadja - killed another 15 civilians.

The purpose behind the bombings is clear; to destroy the hopes of millions of Algerians who voted in last November's presidential elections in the belief that a democratic poll, albeit without the participation of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), would somehow bring an end to violence. President Liamine Zeroual, the ex-general originally appointed by a military- backed committee, gained almost 61 per cent of the votes in an election which appeared remarkably fair. On the day of his victory, he gave the impression that he intended to form a coalition government that would represent, in his own words, "all Algerians".

What has emerged, however, has fallen somewhat short of that aspiration. True, Ahmed Merani, a founder member of the FIS, was made minister of religious affairs. But Mr Merani left the party long ago. Bougara Soltani, a member of Sheikh Mahfoud Nahnah's Hamas party, which won around 25 per cent of the votes in the presidential election, has been made minister for small and medium industries. But Mr Soltani has no control over radical Islamists; less than two years ago, he was seriously wounded by GIA gunmen who killed one of his Hamas colleagues in the same attack.

Other ministers were formerly associated with President Zeroual; the new prime minister, for example, is his former chef de cabinet, and another junior minister was Zeroual's spokesman during the November elections.

Nevertheless, Mr Zeroual has had the satisfaction of observing some bloody divisions among his enemies. When an FIS spokesman in Germany proposed opening a dialogue with the new government, he was bitterly condemned by a colleague in Washington. And the GIA itself has admitted murdering two of its senior members, Mohamed Said and Abderrezak Redjam, because they objected to the campaign of throat-cutting and beheading which has terrorised hundreds of towns and villages across Algeria. The GIA leader, Djemal Zitouni, accused the two men of "planning to destabilise the group and of dividing the mujahedin [fighters]".

Mr Zitouni has also called on his followers to fight their former colleagues in the less savage of the Algerian armed groups, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) for their alleged "corruption on earth" - fundamentalist-speak for saying that the AIS is beginning to doubt the wisdom of a war that has now claimed the lives of at least 50,000 Algerians.

Aware that the opposition is fracturing, President Zeroual in December closed down the harsh desert prison camp in southern Algeria where hundreds of Islamists were held without trial. But, weeks later, GIA men assassinated the head of the Algerian coastguard and a senior army officer in Algiers.

In the mountains, meanwhile, a ruthless guerrilla war continues with few witnesses and even less information divulged by the government. In the last week of December alone, a pro-government daily newspaper in Algiers reported 100 Islamists shot dead by troops and paramilitary police at Ouled Slama. On 3 January, six more armed Muslims were reported killed in gun battles in Algiers. No wonder, then, that Algerians are fearful that a bloody Ramadan may usher in a new and more terrible year.