Killing continues as Algerian peace attempts crumble

Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent, on why talks failed when the country felt a deal was imminent
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The Independent Online
It was the Algerian peace that wasn't. At the beginning of the week, a ceasefire was in the air. Abdul-Rahman Meziane-Cherif, the eradicateur Minister of Interior, had been fired and the two leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), Ali Belhadj and Abassi Madani, were on the threshold of freedom. Presidential elections, so it was said, would allow the FIS to field their own candidates and play their part in a democratic experiment so cruelly cut short 30 months ago.

Or so they would have us believe. By week's end, President (and General) Liamine Zeroual was making Israeli-like declarations: that he would achieve "the final destruction of terrorism" in order to safeguard Algerian "democracy", that the "total re-establishment of security" was his government's aim even if this should turn out to be a long-term project. The final knife- thrust in the peace package that had been so enthusiastically endorsed by the Algerian press was the arrest this week of Sheikh Sulieman Hoceine, the man who had been the only intermediary between the FIS leaders and the government.

The Saudis have also been involved in the peace talks - since Saudi Arabia is the principal bankroller of the ruthless Islamist groups, even though local journalists prefer not to say so - but their influence was clearly not enough to prevent a break in the negotiations. The two principal FIS leaders, it seems, finally refused to believe that the presidential elections, to be held before the end of the year, would offer them the opportunity of recapturing the electoral mandate they would have won in the cancelled 1991-2 parliamentary elections.

Were they promised an Islamic republic which the government had no intention of allowing them? Or did they formally welcome the prospect of a secular- Islamic coalition which they had no wish to accept? Algeria is a country in which betrayal is a part of all political dialogue.

The prologue to "peace" had not been happy. Less than two weeks ago, a car bomb had exploded at a police family housing estate in Constantine, damaging a 10-storey building and wounding 13 civilians, five of them children. A day later, Algerian paramilitary police killed five armed Islamists alleged to have murdered four European priests last year. All the gunmen were shot down, according to the government, with the help of Berber vigilantes in the Kabyle district. A day later, near Chlef five young women, aged 15 to 21, were found with their throats cut not far from the home from which they had been kidnapped. "Islamists" were blamed for the atrocity.

But what of the deal, so widely publicised, so desperately accepted by Algerians themselves, that the government was close to a ceasefire with the FIS leaders? Their talks - which no one denies - were "on the verge of reaching a deal", according to the daily Liberte. It was said that General Mohamed Betchine, President Zeroual's security adviser, was discussing the presidential elections with Mr Madani. Mr Meziane-Cherif was fired to make way for the new "peace". And then, silence - save for General Zeroual's independence day address in which he promised a final war against "terrorism".

Oddly, Mr Meziane-Cherif had himself predicted an end to "terrorism" when he stated on 23 June that Algeria might accept a FIS victory in the presidential elections. He had said as much to the Independent earlier this year, adding that FIS members would be able to stand as individuals, though not as party functionaries. He was replaced on 2 July by Mustafa Benmansour, a little-known governor from the Annaba district. According to Algerian newspapers, Mr Meziane-Cherif had incurred the wrath of Mokdad Sifi, the Prime Minister, by talking far too frequently to foreign journalists. One daily said that Mr Sifi had objected to Mr Meziane-Cherif's insistence that the FIS could participate in presidential elections.

Predictably, the officially recognised opposition parties in Algeria have opposed the government's talks with the FIS - even though they accepted, at a Rome conference last January, that violence would never solve the problems of their country. There must be no rehabilitation of the FIS, according to both the Berber Party for Culture and Democracy, and the former prime minister, Redha Malek. Up to 40,000 people have died in Algeria's civil war. This week's depressing developments suggest the figure could go far higher.