Amnesty in Algeria Ends Without Peace Pact

By Charles Trueheart
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday , January 16, 2000 ; A15

PARIS, Jan. 16 President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's high-stakes gamble to put an end to eight years of carnage in Algeria by pardoning repentant rebels has lapsed into disarray.

Although more than 1,000 rebels reportedly have surrendered, anti-government guerrilla armies were riven with dissension and even internal bloodshed over the government amnesty offer. Algerian military forces, meanwhile, were said to be preparing a concerted assault on radical Muslim rebel strongholds.

After taking power in an uncontested April election, Bouteflika on July 13 gave the Islamic holy warriors who have plagued the North African country since 1992 a chance to surrender without penalty and join his movement for "national concord."

But, he warned, government security forces would crush those who spurned the six-month amnesty offer and continued to slaughter Algerians. More than 100,000 rebels, soldiers and civilians have died in the civil war.

The deadline was up Thursday at midnight, but Algerian newspapers reported that the amnesty offer had been extended informally to allow more surrenders. Bouteflika, who had signaled his intention to address the nation on television Friday night, instead has remained silent.

The number of repentant rebels prepared to accept amnesty from their longtime adversaries is unknown, as is the number who might remain armed and ready to fight on. Analysts said both numbers are in the low four figures.

Most of the worst killing, burning, looting and raping that has scarred the former French colony has been laid to the Armed Islamic Group, the largest and most feared of the rebel organizations. Most of the group's members have spurned the amnesty offer.

Events of the last few days suggest Bouteflika's strategy had divided other guerrilla groups without giving him a clear-cut success.

In a pre-deadline capitulation, one of the major adversary groupings, the Islamic Salvation Army, on Wednesday officially dissolved itself. Encouraged by the tactical victory, Bouteflika immediately granted its members official state absolution without requiring them to pass muster before special military review committees, as other amnesty-seekers must.

But the Islamic Salvation Army long ago ceased to be a security threat to the Algerian government. Since October 1997 its forces have respected a cease-fire arranged in a secret deal with Algeria's powerful military and security establishment.

The independent El Watan newspaper in Algiers today reported that 1,166 followers of Islamic Salvation Army leader Madani Mezeraq would take advantage of the blanket pardon, and Mezeraq would benefit from passage to exile in Saudi Arabia. But Mezeraq, according to subsequent reports, was wounded during an argument with one of his lieutenants who opposed the move.

The Islamic Salvation Army is the armed wing of the Islamic Salvation Front, a banned political party. The party shocked Algeria's ruling military powers in 1991 by garnering enough votes to take power in the parliament. The final round of elections in 1992 that would have installed an Islamic party in power were canceled, and a terror war to overthrow the military-backed government ensued.

Terrorists who have no intention of surrendering have showed their muscle during the just-finished Muslim holy month of Ramadan by executing people at roadblocks. As many as 200 people died in that month alone, and perhaps 600 since Bouteflika laid down his challenge to the terrorists.

Over the weekend there was more serious internal strife among members of a smaller but more persistently violent group, the Salafite Group for Appeal and Struggle, a faction of the Armed Islamic Group.

Its leader, Hassan Hattab, reportedly was negotiating with government security forces on terms of surrender and amnesty as the deadline passed. Reports from Algeria, where foreign news media are almost entirely absent for lack of visas, indicated that one of Hattab's amnesty negotiators had been assassinated by dissenters.

Some analysts in Algiers and in Europe said the dissolution of Mezeraq's Islamic Salvation Army means that its political allies in the Islamic Salvation Front no longer have leverage on the political agenda, and have been effectively co-opted as the principal, if illegal, opposition in Algeria.

The Front's principal leaders, Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, are in detention; a third leader, Abdelkader Hachani, was slain Nov. 22 by an unknown assailant.

Does Bouteflika have the military and political clout to make good on the high-stakes "or-else" he announced last summer? An analyst in Algiers who insisted on anonymity predicted "there'll be more security pressure, but I don't see Armageddon out there. I don't sense the stomach for an all-out campaign."

But Camille Jawil, London-based author of a book on the armed Islamic movement in Algeria, said "the army has to do something now, probably a major assault on the strongholds" of the Armed Islamic Group. Troop movements presaging such a military action were reported in the Algerian press today.