Spectre of civil war stalks Algeria: Growing carnage in the country may lead to the army taking power, Robert Fisk writes from Algiers

A TRAGEDY is unfolding in Algeria. Its nature - an insurrection by Muslim militants denied a two-year old election victory - is well known, but its dimensions are growing daily more fearful with blood-letting on a scale unknown since the war of independence against France. After more than 3,000 violent deaths in two years - the figure may well be over 4,000 - areas of the country are now temporarily falling each night under the control of the 'Armed Islamic Movement'. Professors and journalists, soldiers and Muslim militants, policemen and local government officials are being slaughtered.

After the miserable failure of this week's 'national conference', Algeria has been left without a president, although there is little doubt what the immediate future holds. Two weeks ago, General Lamine Zeroual, the Minister of Defence, announced that if Algeria's quarrelling political parties did not show some unity at their conference, the 150,000-strong army would not 'stand idly by' while the country disintegrated. Familiar words which may yet tell a familiar story. If the unelected 'High State Council' chooses General Zeroual as president this weekend, Algeria will have undergone a legal coup d'etat.

How else, secular Algerians might ask, can an Islamic revolution and civil war be averted after 30 years of largely socialist and equally corrupt government? Yet the families of security force personnel - and in some cases the officers themselves - have already been forced to retreat into government compounds each night for their own protection. And despite wholesale battles with the 'Islamists', the Algerian army and paramilitary police have been unable to reduce the number of victims cut down so savagely each day.

The word 'cut' is all too accurate. Many of those assassinated by the 'Islamists' are dispatched with knives, left on rubbish tips or roadsides with their heads almost severed from their bodies. Five nights ago, a 24-year-old unemployed man in the village of Kasr el-Boukhari was decapitated and his head left on the steps of a disused cinema. 'An example,' his murderers said in a leaflet pasted on village walls, 'to all those who violate the morality of Islam.' On the eve of this week's conference, a policeman was stabbed to death in front of a group of children in Anaba. On the night the conference ended, 'Islamists' assassinated six civilians in Djidjel province, one of them Ferhat Chibout, a professor of history, who was shot in front of his parents, his wife and two children.

As usual, the outside world has cared more about foreign than domestic victims of the war, a fact shrewdly grasped by the Muslim activists. Their promise to kill all citizens of 'Crusader states' culminated two weeks ago in the 26th murder of a Westerner in Algeria, a French consular official whose death led at once to the temporary suspension of all visas to France. Monique Afri's murder was followed by the killing of Raymond Louzoum, 62, a Tunisian-born Jew who had been living in Algiers for 30 years. An optician who had married a Muslim woman and was seeking Algerian citizenship, he played French officers in a series of films about the Algerian independence war. Two bullets were fired into Louzoum's head in Didouche Mourad street in central Algiers.

Not that the Muslim insurrection has a monopoly on killing. Whether or not the government uses 'death squads' as an Algerian civil rights movement claims, military attacks on 'Islamists' result in few prisoners. A French intelligence intercept of an Algerian police assault on a Muslim stronghold provides clear evidence of an officer ordering his men to take no prisoners. As the Algerian army prepares for what might prove to be an all-out war with the armed Islamic uprising, such incidents are going to become commonplace. So are attacks on the army. Last month, 'Islamists' killed 12 recruits in their camp near Sidi Bel-Abes. Two weeks ago, a soldier was stopped at a routine police checkpoint outside Algiers. He showed his army pass - and immediately had his throat cut. The checkpoint was false: the 'policemen' were gunmen in military uniform. These false checkpoints are becoming ever more frequent - and are, according to Algiers citizens, growing closer to the capital each week.

The frustration of secular Algerians has naturally been vented against the impotent 'High State Council', an army-controlled constitutional hybrid which grew out of Chadli Bendjedid's resignation two years ago; its only worthwhile act was to appoint to the presidency an old National Liberation Front (FLN) guerrilla fighter - Mohamed Boudiaf - who was almost immediately murdered by one of his own security guards. The corruption of 30 years of post-independence FLN rule - endemic among followers of Mohammed Ben Bella, Houari Boumedienne and Mr Chadli - is still largely blamed for the shortages of gas, petrol, bread, meat and electricity across Algeria, not to mention the 2 million unemployed (the unofficial figure is 4 million). Bread queues in Algiers today have been outnumbered only by the hundreds of Algerians desperate to leave their country, who stood outside the French embassy visa office until Monique Afri's murder closed it down.

The authorities do not allow Algeria's 26 million people to forget what civil war would mean. Every day, Algerian television repeats news film of the slaughter in Kabul, of MiG jet fighters bombing the Afghan capital, of corpses of women and children lying in the streets. If you do not remain united behind your government, the unspoken message goes, then this will be Algiers and Oran and all the graceful old cities of Algeria.

The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) - thousands of whose followers remain in Saharan prison camps - refused to attend this week's conference, along with the FLN. Ali Bel-Haj and other FIS leaders, aware of the extent of their first- round election victory in 1991, would have nothing to do with the authorities who imprisoned them.

General Zeroual knows all about revolutions. After leaving the army in 1989 - essential for any officer wishing to maintain his credibility during Mr Chadli's corrupt government - he was appointed ambassador to Bucharest, where he witnessed the chaos that followed the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu. If General Zeroual takes control of the country this weekend, he will have to decide on the loyalty of his own army. If it remains loyal, he may yet 'manage the crisis', as the painfully inappropriate phrase now runs among the middle classes.

If it breaks apart, civil war would become a reality. To understand this, Algerians have only to take a look at those newsreel films of the Afghan war.

(Photograph omitted)

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