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January 27, 2000

In Assault on Islamic Rebels, a Bid to End Algeria's Civil War

By JOHN F. BURNS

LONDON, Jan. 26 -- A bid by Algeria's president to end an eight-year civil war by beginning an offensive against Islamic guerrillas who have defied a government amnesty has erupted into some of the fiercest fighting in years.

Reports in Algerian newspapers have said that at least 125 soldiers and guerrillas have been killed since the government began its offensive in a mountainous area of western Algeria nine days ago.



The New York Times
Relizane Province has been one base for rebel attacks.
The government attack follows an ultimatum included in a peace plan President Abdelaziz Bouteflika put forward after he was elected last April. His proposal for a "civil concord" with the guerrillas, ratified in a national referendum in September, hinged on an amnesty for any rebel surrendering before Jan. 13. A pro-government newspaper in Algiers, El Khabar, said last week that 4,200 rebels might have surrendered, more than double the figure previously given by the government. But by most counts, at least 1,500 rebels, perhaps substantially more, remain active.

When he proposed the amnesty, Mr. Bouteflika said that guerrillas who prolonged the war would face "a fight without mercy" and "eradication." He waited six days past the deadline before sending paratroops, infantry units and helicopters against one of the main guerrilla strongholds in the hinterland of Relizane province, 95 miles southwest of Algiers. The region is one of several that have served as base areas for guerrilla attacks on the Mediterranean coastal plain, where 90 percent of Algerians live.

The combat area -- which includes the Oursenis national park, a vacation area before the war -- is thickly forested with pines and cedars and rises to nearly 4,000 feet. Le Matin, an independent Algiers newspaper, reported on Monday that 25 government soldiers and about 100 guerrillas had been killed, with 70 of the dead rebels being accounted for in fighting on Saturday. The paper said about 230 guerrillas were still holding out against the main thrust of the government attack.

The stakes are high. Mr. Bouteflika was hand-picked for the presidency last year by Algeria's generals, who have held decisive political authority since shortly after Algeria's independence from France in 1962. His pledge to Algeria's 30 million people was that he would bring about "national reconciliation" by ending the war.

By unofficial estimates, 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict, most of them civilians who have been bombed in cafes, markets and schools, stopped at guerrilla roadblocks and executed, or slaughtered by the hundreds in village massacres.

Algerians see the conflict as an extension of what they call their national "nightmare," reaching back to the eight-year war of independence with a French colonial army that historians say cost about one million lives.

More than an end to the war rides on Mr. Bouteflika's shoulders, since many Algerians believe there is little hope of the generals' allowing the emergence of a genuine parliamentary democracy or of Algeria's rising from the economic abyss into which it fell in the 1990's until the fighting ends.

Although Algerians are gaining confidence that the back of the Islamic insurgency has been broken, it is not clear yet that the war's end is at hand. For one thing, the rebels' "eradication" would void the generals' main claim for retaining decisive political power.

"It's a little early to say, but I'm not at all convinced that this is the end game," said High Roberts, a specialist on Algeria who teaches at the London School of Economics. "I'm not convinced that there is a consensus in Algiers to make a definitive end to all the armed groups."

The amnesty plan has had some striking successes. On Jan. 11, two days before the amnesty expired, the guerrilla group that started the war, the Islamic Salvation Army, agreed to dissolve itself after Mr. Bouteflika granted its estimated 8,000 fighters a blanket amnesty. The move effectively ratified the status quo, since the Islamic Salvation Front, the political group that controlled the fighters, had observed a cease-fire since August 1997.

Perhaps more significant has been Mr. Bouteflika's success in opening amnesty negotiations with a splinter force led by a guerrilla leader, Hassan Hattab, who broke with the main insurgent group over its attacks on civilians. Algerian security force spokesmen have said that Mr. Hattab has 1,500 fighters in his group, the Salafist Group for Proselytization and Combat, which has been active in the mountains of the Kabylia area about 70 miles east of Algiers.

What remains unclear is how many guerrillas will accept, or defy, their leaders' decisions on the amnesty. The interior minister, Yazid Zerhouni, said last week that "about 80 percent" of all the guerrillas had surrendered, but did not specify how many men that involved. Although the Islamic Salvation Army's leader, Madani Mezrag, signed a statement dissolving the force, the actual hand-over of arms by his fighters appears to have been sporadic. Government spokesmen have said that 1,100 of the Mr Mezrag's fighters have surrendered in the Jijel area, 130 miles east of Algiers, but others have yet to respond.

A major point of contention in the government's negotiations with the guerrilla leaders has been the amnesty terms. The deal with the Islamic Salvation Army provided that the rebel fighters would be merged into the government army and used in the war against rebel holdouts. This appears to have been the case already in the Relizane offensive.

For other groups, a sticking point could be Mr. Bouteflika's insistence that the amnesty will not cover "blood crimes," rape or acts of terror in public places, a definition likely to cover many of the rebels.




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