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August 5, 1999

France Says Algeria Is Emerging From the Ordeal That Began in '92


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    By CRAIG R. WHITNEY

    PARIS -- When Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected president of Algeria in April, in a one-candidate vote that hardly seemed likely to end a civil war that has killed 100,000 people since 1992, the French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, expressed "concern."

    Three months later, Vedrine is singing a different tune since his return last weekend from an official visit to Algiers. "Algeria is emerging from its tragedy," he told the Journal du Dimanche.

    His meetings with Bouteflika laid the groundwork, French officials say, for renewing relations between France and its former colony.

    France, which took in nearly a million immigrants after Algeria won its independence in 1962, feared that in the current conflict violence between Islamic militants and the previous military-dominated government could easily spread to French soil, and terrorist bombings by an Islamic network that killed 8 people and wounded 160 in France in 1995 seemed only to prove the point.

    Having been accused by the Islamic militants of being too close to the Algerian military authorities, France backed off after the bombings but cracked down on the Algerian underground here and ended the threat.

    But after all six of Bouteflika's opponents in last spring's presidential elections in Algeria dropped out, charging "massive fraud" by the government, some French officials thought that the new president, a former foreign minister, would have little chance of ending the civil war. It began after the military authorities canceled an election that Islamic parties seemed certain to win.

    The violence is not over in Algeria, where 10 government soldiers were killed and 5 were wounded over the weekend when Muslim guerrillas ambushed them in a mountain village 180 miles east of Algiers. But Bouteflika got the Islamic Salvation Army, one of the biggest rebel factions, to agree to a peace accord in June and later freed thousands of prisoners with pardons.

    Bouteflika announced on Sunday that he would hold a referendum on the peace agreement on Sept. 16. He said in a nationally televised speech on Monday that the referendum would mark the end of the insurgency and the return of stability to Algeria. "Foreign capital needs security and confidence in order to return," he said.

    Bouteflika is to visit Paris early next month on his way to the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York City. France's prime minister, Lionel Jospin, told his cabinet this week that he hoped Bouteflika would demonstrate improved relations with deeds as well as words.

    Vedrine seems convinced. "Something has happened," he told the Journal du Dimanche. "President Bouteflika is there, he has made statements and gestures that demonstrate a real opening, both at the internal level, with the proposal for national reconciliation, and on the international level. He has not hesitated to say that, for him, the relationship with France was a fundamental one, or to speak French."

    Only a few years ago, the military authorities in Algeria were trying to eliminate French from public schools there, a sign of the strains that have persisted much of the time since 1962, when Algeria became a separate country after a war that took 15,000 French and up to a million Algerian lives.

    And as recently as the beginning of 1998, hundreds of Algerian villagers at a time were being massacred in attacks by the rebels, and the few Europeans in the streets of Algiers felt dangerously exposed.

    "We are in a radically different situation," Vedrine observed. "The climate has changed. An atmosphere of freedom has returned to Algiers. The French people I met in Algeria in the course of my visit told me, 'In recent months, we are no longer afraid."'

    Vedrine said that French consulates in Annaba and Oran would reopen, as the main one in Algiers had recently, and that France had increased the number of visas for Algerians from 50,000 to 150,000. Air France is also considering whether it is safe to resume flights between France and Algeria, which were suspended after a flight from Algiers to Paris was hijacked in December 1994.

    Vedrine also appealed for French business to return to Algeria, which last year imported $2 billion worth of food and industrial equipment from France, compared with $960 million from the United States.

    French and American oil companies never stopped operations in the Algerian desert, and Algeria exported $10 billion worth of oil last year, the largest share going to Italy, France and the United States.

    "We can only encourage French enterprises that were there to return, and for others to come," Vedrine said. "Today Algerian authorities seem to me to be very favorable to their returning."



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