Brutal killers without faces

Civil war in Algeria has cost up to 150,000 lives, and there is no end in sight. Nowdifficult questions are being asked about who is really behind the latest massacres
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The Independent Online

The Mediterranean coast road west of Algiers twists around mountainsides and frothing coves, thepeninsulas decorated with fragile French-built lighthouses and crumbling "pied noir" mansions, theirroofs broken, their tiles smashed, their ornate walls of dressed stone irredeemably cracked. This was onceFrench-Algeria's Cote d'Azur and further along the coast lie the magnificent ruins of Roman Tipasa,proof that another, earlier empire understood the beauty of this land.

The Mediterranean coast road west of Algiers twists around mountainsides and frothing coves, thepeninsulas decorated with fragile French-built lighthouses and crumbling "pied noir" mansions, theirroofs broken, their tiles smashed, their ornate walls of dressed stone irredeemably cracked. This was onceFrench-Algeria's Cote d'Azur and further along the coast lie the magnificent ruins of Roman Tipasa,proof that another, earlier empire understood the beauty of this land.

Today, the legions of Rome and France have been replaced by hundreds of flak-jacketed troops of theAlgerian Parachute brigade, tall men in yellow battle-smocks at crossroads and on hillsides, patrolling inarmoured Land Rovers, only occasionally glancing up at the dun-coloured cloud that settles over theforest of Beinam. For it is here, in the triangle of woods and hills that lie immediately south-east of thecapital, that the Algerian army is trying to crack the Islamic Armed Group - the GIA - whose ferociousbattalions have been slaughtering the villagers of the Mitidja plain by the hundred.

For the first time last week, the Algerian authorities allowed foreign journalists to visit the massacre sites.And what they found was every bit as terrible as the original reports. Pools of blood, congealed into crustbut still covered in flies, lay in burned-out homes and garages.Blood was smeared round living-room andbalcony walls. The survivors talked of men in Afghan costume - some wearing turbans, others masks --who, without emotion, cut the throats of wives, children, aunts, old men. Several men had survivedthroat-cutting and displayed terrible neck wounds.

Even as this horror was finally disclosed, the Algerian government was stunned by revelations of adifferent kind: the news from Paris that President Houari Boumediene, one of the grandfathers of theAlgerian revolution, had secretly allowed France to test chemical weapons in the Algerian desert until1978 - 16 years after the end of the war that was supposed to have won Algeria total independence. Wasthis leak, the Algerians asked suspiciously, timed to embarrass them in the week when municipal electionswere supposed to prove Algeria's dedication to democracy? As they contemplated such a conspiracy, theyfaced equally disturbing questions about the failure of their security services to prevent the massacres. Formany of the victims turned out to be not government supporters but families of Islamists. Hadgovernment agents with no wish for a ceasefire infiltrated the ranks of the GIA?

The military operation on the heights of Beinam and Ouled Allel has revealed just how well organised theGIA has become, even if the scale of the army's offensive is more "a campaign for public consumption" -to quote an opposition candidate in last week's election - than a full-scale assault. The Algerian army saysit has found dozens of underground bunkers containing offices, with desks, files, computer terminals anda mini-department of finance, all the accoutrements of a guerrilla mini-government in the hills outsideAlgiers. They have called up bulldozers to dig through the ruins of the broken town of Ouled Allel while"liquidating" - this chilling description should be taken literally - "terrorist elements".

Equally without doubt, however, are the astonishing sets of GIA correspondence that troops havediscovered in the mountains and released to a few selected Algerian journalists, papers which show howruthless the guerrilla group is, even with its own members. Many of the letters are addressed to AntanZouabri, the GIA's leader, by the local "emir" of the movement's Algiers "Essabiquoun" district, AbouAbdullah Aissa, containing financial transactions and costs of operations.

But a series of more dramatic letters signed by Aissa records the decision to execute some of his ownmen. A GIA death sentence was announced on 18 June, for example, against Abu Ismail MohamedEl-Ouki who had apparently become unpopular with his men - "because of the complaints made by the'Foreigners of Baraki' contingent," according to the document.Another GIA man from the same unit,Farouk Abu Nahass, was executed for "indiscipline and slackness".Further sets of papers - many withGIA printed at the top - reveal that Aissa had to request his opposite number in another GIA zone,Massaab Abu Djendel, to send him extra weapons for an attack on a village, including 12 bombs,Molotov cocktails and "300 metres of wire for explosives that could be used to break down doors". Manyvillagers in the recent massacres have described how the attackers blew down their front doors withexplosives. The same letter asks for help in looking after a wounded guerrilla called "Isaac".

Much more intriguing has been the capture of a 36-year-old woman identified only as Zohra and using thecode-name Nacera, who allegedly followed guerrillas into the village of Bentalha last month, helping thegunmen to collect jewellery and valuables from the women whose throats they were cutting. Again, thearmy paraded their prisoner only in front of Algerian journalists, although she was later shown - briefly -making a .

similar confession on state television, her eyes wide, her hair tied back by a spotted scarf.

Zohra's father was murdered by gunmen earlier this year after denouncing to the police her brother - whowas killed by plain-clothes men the same day. Under threat, so she claimed, from the GIA, she was toldto identify the houses of civilians to be attacked - an easy enough task as Zohra was born in Bentalha.

She entered the village, she said, along with 40 armed men - some of whom spoke Arabic with Tunisian,Moroccan and Libyan accents. Her mother helped in stripping the slaughtered village women of jewelsbefore fleeing to the forest with the gunmen. She hadn't realised the villagers would be killed, she told theAlgerian reporters. "I didn't know what they were going to do there... I don't agree with what they did."After the massacre, she refused the GIA's offer of £1.50 for the taxi fare back to her home in theAlgiers' suburb of Harrache.

In a state where police torture is routine, it is impossible to know how much of Zohra's story is true.Jailed women in Algiers have been gang- raped to make them talk. But her tale - and the documents foundat Ouled Allel - convinced the army that their opponents were more than the representatives of "residualterrorism" that the government here has been talking about.While President Liamine Zeroual, himself ageneral, was announcing to Algerians that "terrorism is on its last legs", Algerian army spokesmen begantelling the press that such "triumphalist" remarks were unhelpful, that the GIA contained intelligent men, a"brain", that it had created an alternative system of administration in the areas it controlled in the forests.The struggle was not over, the army said.

For Algerians who have waited five years for peace - who have endured a war that has cost as many as150,000 lives - this was grim news indeed. The conflict began when the military-backed governmentcancelled national elections which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) were certain to win in 1991. Bannedas a party and with its members on the run, the FIS divided. A political core tried to keep the movementalive, a military wing assaulted the security forces, and a group of disenchanted youths, under the virtualdictatorship of uneducated village "emirs", began a far more savage campaign of butchery againstjournalists, civil servants, the families of policemen, foreigners - especially French men and women, nunsand priests - and, finally, the villages outside Algiers.

Over the past two years, President Zeroual has tried to persuade the world that democracy has beenre-established in Algeria. After being declared president after a comparatively fair election, threesubsequent polls of ever increasing dishonesty - a constitutional referendum, national and now municipalelections - have provided a rubber stamp for a presidency that can rule by decree, ignore a majority inparliament and whose own newly-created political party won last week's poll - according to theopposition - by fraud.

It was therefore a moment of supreme irony when Algeria's minister of foreign affairs, Ahmed Attaf,arrived to reassure the press in Algiers last week of the country's rosy and democratic future - only to findthat the French magazine Nouvel Observateur had revealed a secret deal between the late Algerianpresident Houari Boumediene and General de Gaulle to maintain a secret French chemical weapons plantdeep in the Algerian desert. Under the Evian agreement that ended the 1954-62 Franco-Algerian war,France was allowed to maintain a nuclear testing facility in the Sahara desert whose French officialswould begin decontamination three years after independence, in 1967.

ALL this might be a footnote of history in Paris. But in Algiers, it arrived like a bombshell. Boumediene,who refused to make a state visit to France lest he be required to stand for the "Marseillaise", had sent twogenerals to sign secret protocols with the French which would allow them to test chemical weapons on amassive scale at their top-secret B2 Namous plant just south of the Moroccan border until 1978.

Mr Attaf hummed and hawed. He had "no reason to doubt the sincerity of the French government" whenit said it never undertook chemical testing after 1967, he told us.But he would be asking for furtherdetails from Paris. Redha Malek, a recent Algerian prime minister who signed the Evian accords, agreedthat Algeria had compromised over nuclear testing but refused to answer when asked about a secretprotocol on chemical weapons. How the Algerian government's armed opponents must have gasped atbeing handed such a political victory.

For ever since the suspension of the 1991 elections, the government's Islamist opponents - the FIS, theirmilitary wing, their spokesmen abroad, the GIA "emirs" - had claimed that their struggle was against thecorruption of the old FLN-nomenklatura administration, their betrayal of Algeria's supposed "Islamicheritage", their secret collusion with France. And now here was the evidence. Algeria, signatory of somany accords against chemical weapons, was apparently allowing the French to test them near theAlgerian oasis town of Bechar.

Mr Attaf did his best to focus attention on other things. He berated Mary Robinson, the UN human rightscommissioner, for concentrating on the causes rather than the acts of violence in Algeria. "What causesjustify killing women and children?" he asked. Indeed, there were times when the foreign minister beganto sound like the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Algeria was in the "global battle againstterror", he insisted. A suggestion from a journalist that an international inquiry might be held into therecent village massacres was described as "an odious question".

But of course, it was not odious. For as details continue to emerge about the slaughters in Bentalha andRais and Sidi Moussa - where women, children and babies were hacked to pieces with knives andhatchets, disembowelled and burned alive - more and more questions are being asked about them. Most ofthese villagers came from Islamist areas, many had voted FIS in the 1991 elections. In one case - at BeniMoussa - a massive army base overlooked the "wadi" in which 84 women and children were butchered.But no soldiers came to their aid. At Rais, the local barracks was scarcely a mile from the area in whichmore than 300 were butchered. Again, no soldiers came to the rescue. If ever an inquiry was called forinto a massacre, this was it.

But Algeria, it seems, must soldier on to the bitter end."Democracy" will bring peace and the overthrowof "terrorism". The people must rally round their government of national unity, whose respect for humanrights - and police gang-rape, secret executions and disappearances are to be forgotten - is enshrined in 23human rights conventions in which Algeria has participated.

Outside Algiers, in a broad field flanked by a thundering highway, several acres of ground have beenploughed up. And amid the mud are cheap rectangles of cement and stone bearing the names of massacrevictims. "Assab Ibrahim, aged 49, Hourriyah Amani, aged 35..." There is no room on the tombstones formore than names and ages. Many are children under five and babies less than a year old. There are morethan 500 graves and the cemetery of mud and stones and dead flowers and litter and old plastic bags isgrowing by the day. And given the size of the field, there is room for thousands more.