Leading Article: Dialogue is the only hope in Algeria's darkest hour

The ghastliness in Algeria grows daily even ghastlier. The holy Islamic month of Ramadan is just 10 days old, but, according to the government- controlled local press, at least 700 - perhaps 1,000 - innocent civilians have already been slaughtered; burned, beheaded and disembowelled, as is the norm in this peculiarly sinister and horrible civil war between a military regime and an Islamic fundamentalist movement cheated of certain electoral victory in 1992. The revulsion and anguish are universal, but nowhere more deeply felt than in Europe, linked by history and geography to the lands of North Africa, which buys 90 per cent of Algeria's oil and depends on Algeria for one-fifth of its supplies of natural gas. Even France, which hitherto has bent over backwards not to offend the rulers of its former colony, has now criticised the government in Algiers and supports a German proposal for a European initiative to bring the bloodletting to an end. Something must be done, the world demands. The problem is, what?

The answer would be easier were Algeria in terminal collapse, and requiring international intervention to prevent mass starvation. That has not happened yet, and on balance is unlikely to happen. The country's rulers may be failing in the primary duty of a state, to ensure the physical safety of those within its borders. But unlike Bosnia or Somalia, where the UN intervened, Algeria remains a functioning state. Sixty-five thousand, 75,000, maybe 100,000 people (who knows?) may have died in the civil war. But it is solvent. Its economy is growing at 4 per cent, and the oil and gas fields that drive that growth are in the south and east, massively protected and far from the main killing fields in the hinterland of the capital, Algiers, and the west of the country. Indeed, in words almost obscene with paradox, the IMF just nine months ago was praising Algeria's "exemplary" efforts at (economic) reform. Clearly we are not dealing with a basket case, a "collapsed state" in the Somalian or Bosnian sense.

Intervention, moreover, presupposes a reasonably clearly defined target. Here again, Algeria fails the test. Yes, the population must be better protected - but from whom? This is a war of hideous complicities. Few can doubt the primary responsibility of the rebel fundamentalists; but the evidence is overwhelming that the security forces have connived at some massacres. Throw in ancient, rekindled tribal hatreds, and the picture is murkier still. People die by the hundred every week, but at precisely whose hand? Is the aim to eradicate the guerrilla movement, to strengthen the counter-insurgency capability of the military, or to endow Algeria with a government that can reunite the country? Ultim- ately, only the third will end the conflict.

Set against this background, none of the possible remedies measures up. Some urge an international boycott of exports of Algeria's gas and oil, to "punish" the government for its documented human rights abuses against its citizens. But even if such sanctions were workable, the economic pain would fall largely upon ordinary citizens who have already suffered greatly. Gentler outside intervention carries separate risks. Arab countries, especially the two other Maghreb nations, would seem to be natural candidates - except that few Arab governments want the slightest truck with Islamic fundamentalism. Europe, and indeed the United Nations, have already seen offers of their services rebuffed more than once. To this week's criticism from Paris, the Algerian foreign ministry responded that the French authorities had no right to sermonise and make suggestions while Algeria itself was "acting to end the crisis". And so, once more, to the heart of the dilemma: the international community may plead and wring its hands - or rather, be accused of washing its hands. But how is it to intervene against the express wishes of a viable country that time and again since independence in 1962 has proved the prickliest and most uncompromising component of what was once known as the Third World?

One faint glimmer of hope remains. No more than a doctor can prescribe a cure without knowing the nature of his patient's sickness, can the international community presume to recommend solutions for Algeria unless it possesses the facts. At the very least, therefore, outside observers, be they from the United Nations, the European Union or the Arab world, must be allowed into the country to gather information on the ground. And now, according to the spokesman of the US State Department, Algiers has signalled to Washington its willingness to discuss human rights abuses with UN emissaries. Perhaps nothing will come of it. But, just possibly, the gesture will provide an opening for the fact-gatherers; and upon their labours may be built a genuine third-party mediation. Every massacre makes a greater mockery of the claims of the Algiers government to be on the brink of winning a civil war that has cost almost as many lives as Bosnia. Only negotiation will provide a lasting settlement. We can but pray that that realisation will dawn upon the combatants, sooner rather than later.