Leading Article: Algerian crisis threatens us all

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THE CRISIS in Algeria was forced on the attention of world leaders during their weekend summit in Naples by the murder of seven Italian sailors. Yesterday four Russians, two people from former Yugoslavia and a Romanian were killed in Algeria, bringing the number of foreigners murdered there to 51.

These deaths provide a focus for French warnings that the conflict in Algeria could soon become a danger to Europe. Economic breakdown, they point out, would send refugees flooding into France, bringing their quarrels and terrorists with them. Victory for the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) could hasten the destabilisation of Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.

The difficulty is to know what to do. President Clinton wants to find 'ways to accommodate legitimate forces of dissent', but this only annoys President Mitterrand, who is reportedly against co-operation with fundamentalists, citing Egypt as an example of the perils of dialogue. President Liamine Zeroual of Algeria has in fact tried talking with the imprisoned leaders of the FIS, but without result. Much of the violence is perpetrated by extremists beyond their control.

The savagery of the conflict is reminiscent of the war of liberation against the French, which ended in 1962. The rebels claim to be fighting to drive out a regime they regard as having betrayed the revolution by selling out to Western interests and secularism. They kill foreigners to make this point and to deprive the economy of foreign experts.

But thousands of Algerians have also been killed since January 1992, when the government cancelled elections because Muslim fundamentalists were likely to win. Both sides are guilty of appalling brutality. The government uses murder and torture as freely as the French once did against the revolutionary movement from which it comes.

It is the failure of that movement to provide effective government that is at the root of the trouble. Algeria's natural wealth has been squandered, and the once revolutionary elites have become corrupt. Muslim fundamentalists have latched on to the poverty and discontent of a population about 70 per cent of whom are under 30 and 4 million may be unemployed.

The best solution would be to remedy the grievances on which the rebels feed by reconstructing the economy. But that would require the foreign experts and money that are now being driven out. The outlook is, therefore, grim. But the French are right about one thing: the problem is a European one that should not be left to them alone.