French face death in Algeria: Ultimatum by Islamic militants runs out

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The Independent Online
A DEADLINE set by Islamic fundamentalists for French residents to leave Algeria or face death ran out yesterday, with many Europeans taking to hotels or guarded villas for safety.

The ultimatum, delivered by the Armed Islamic Group, a fringe fundamentalist movement, via one of three French consular officials abducted in October but freed unharmed after a week, was followed in France by the rounding up of 88 suspected supporters of the Algerian fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), with charges being laid against three of them.

In the preceding six weeks, seven foreigners working in Algeria had been kidnapped and killed but the last month in the former French colony has been quiet, apparently reflecting the fundamentalists' implied promise of a one- month truce.

Two other threats were delivered at the end of October, one to authorities in Algiers and another in Paris. The message in Algiers said that all foreigners, not just the French, would be targets if they did not leave. Many foreign companies operating in Algiers have since pulled out expatriate workers.

About 25,000 French nationals are registered as resident in Algeria, apart from the many others who hold dual Algerian and French nationality. No precise figures for those remaining are available but many have sent dependants back to France.

According to the manager of the Sofitel hotel in Algiers, many of those remaining have moved from their homes into hotels. French press reports said others were grouped in villas under police protection. Restaurants usually frequented by Europeans were still full at lunchtime but empty for dinner even before the end of the ultimatum, these reports said.

The French government's actions against FIS sympathisers have been accompanied by round-ups of Kurdish residents thought to have links with the Kurdish People's Party, the PKK, mirrored by similar action elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Germany. On Tuesday, the Interior Ministry banned two organisations which it said were PKK fronts. Charles Pasqua, the Interior Minister, said they were involved in terrorist and criminal activities, especially 'extortion of funds from the Kurdish community', a euphemism for protection rackets.

While the Algerian and Kurdish operations on French soil may not seem related, security sources have said that they had similar aims: the Interior Ministry was anxious to prevent the formation of new Middle Eastern guerrilla networks which could eventually be used by Iranian extremists. In any case, they demonstrate an apparent determination to be firm rather than compromise despite the threats against French people abroad.

Mr Pasqua said his ministry had set up a new unit to 'control fundamentalist and extremist organisations' in France. Paris, he said, had an abiding interest in the stability of Algeria and other Muslim countries and wished to build up a 'partnership and avoid the catastrophe scenario'.