Islamic militants threaten to attack French in Algeria

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AN extremist Algerian Islamic fundamentalist group yesterday told France to withdraw all its nationals from Algeria or face new attacks on French people and interests there.

The Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which has claimed responsibility for a series of killings, issued its ultimatum through the London-based Arab-language newspaper Al-Hayat, claiming that France, as the former colonial ruler of Algeria, was guilty of 'great and vicious crimes', and should safeguard 'the rights and dignity' of Muslims on its soil.

It came at the end of a week in which French authorities carried out extensive checks on Algerians living in France to find fundamentalist sympathisers and arms or explosives. The operation, masterminded by Charles Pasqua, the forthright Gaullist Interior Minister, resulted in the detention of several dozen North Africans, mostly for residence irregularities or offences not connected with Islamic fundamentalism.

In an interview with the conservative Le Figaro newspaper, Mr Pasqua said he did not believe there was a great risk of fundamentalists staging terrorist attacks inside France, a threat made earlier by the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the military wing of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The AIS made the threat as France began rounding up known fundamentalists. This was in response to the murder of three gendarmes who were guards at the French embassy in Algiers and two consular officials, in the Algerian capital.

While networks supplying arms to fundamentalists in Algeria had been uncovered in France, Mr Pasqua said he did not 'believe in the existence of networks directly connected to the preparation or organisation of attacks' on French soil. These words seemed designed to reassure public opinion after speculation that France might be in for a wave of bombings like those which killed 13 people in 1986. Mr Pasqua added that he was more worried that individual Algerians living in France might be subject to assassination attempts.

With Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, and several other senior members of the government on holiday, Mr Pasqua has appeared to be in sole control of Algerian policy. Given public perception that he is a hardliner on immigration questions, Mr Pasqua's current prominence has troubled a number of politicians.

Alain Juppe, the Foreign Minister, in a television interview on Thursday sought to deny that Mr Pasqua's operation was a demonstration of Paris's support for the Algerian military regime. Algiers, he said, should seek a political solution and hold elections.

Mr Pasqua, meanwhile, made it plain that the 20 or so Islamic militants in detention could not expect to be allowed to live freely in France again. While France had no intention of sending them back to Algeria - where they would face imprisonment at least - 'if a country can be found which will take them, we shall not object to them leaving'.