Algiers ridicules peace overtures

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The Independent Online
Algeria's military-backed government came under increasing pressure yesterday to give a positive response to a peace initiative launched by opposition parties in Rome last week, with one fundamentalist leader warning that the only alternative to d ialogue was open civil war.

Paris and Washington sent diplomatic signals yesterday indicating their enthusiasm for multi-party talks; the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) said the ball was now in the government's court. A spokesman for Rabah Kebir, an FIS member in exile in Germany, said that without dialogue Algeria faced "total chaos".

Opposition parties representing 85 per cent of the electorate published a joint declaration on Friday demanding the fastest possible return to democratic government with a national peace conference to pave the way for multi-party elections.

The declaration appeared to mark a turning-point in Algeria's three years of strife, bringing the FIS unequivocally into the democratic fold and bridging some of the enmity between religious and lay parties.

Algiers has so far responded only with disdain. The Interior Minister, Abderahmane Meziane-Sherif, described the Rome talks as meddling by "retarded politicians" that would play into the hands of fundamentalist terrorists. Participants at the talks responded that they wanted to curb the government's own brand of terrorism.

The Rome declaration coincided with the murder of six members of the FLN, the one-time ruling party in Algeria, which has distanced itself from the government and played a key role in the peace talks.

Algiers plans to hold presidential elections by the end of the year and appears to regard the opposition's own programme for democracy as unwelcome competition. It has yet to make a formal statement, however, and hopes were rising yesterday that its linecould still soften.

Mario Marazziti, spokesman for the Roman Catholic community of Sant'Egidio, which brokered last week's talks, said: "The government is having the greatest difficulty in changing its mind but it doesn't have any alternative. This is an opportunity it can't afford to lose."

The diplomatic picture has been complicated by a statement purporting to be from the most militant of the fundamentalist militias, the GIA, in broad support of the Rome declaration. The statement contradicted the declaration on a number of key points, and its authenticity appeared seriously in doubt. FIS members and neutral observers suspected it was the work of Algerian intelligence services trying to tar the Rome talks with a terrorist brush.

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