Prague, 25 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - For most of this week, no speaker at the United Nations General Assembly in New York had even bothered to mention the continuing slaughter of civilians --most of them children and women-- in the terror-ridden north African nation of Algeria.
Finally, the silence was broken yesterday by German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, who asked the assembled diplomats: "How long can the international community look away?" Kinkel said. "The vileness of the carnage in Algeria simply takes one's breath away."
"We cannot accept the mass murder of innocents without the world community standing up and reacting," Kinkel said.
Kinkel's rhetoric was, if anything, an understatement. The now almost nightly massacres of Algerian civilians, often involving throat-cutting, mutilation and decapitation, have been responsible for more than a thousand deaths over the past three months. The last one took place on Tuesday and was reported by eye-witnesses to have cost the lives of more than 200 people, although --typically-- the government estimated the toll at less than half that number.
Since 1992, when the military-backed government canceled elections the banned Islamic Salvation Front (known by its French acronym as FIS) was poised to win, well over 60,000 people are known to have perished in Algeria's ongoing civil and religious strife.
Like the slaughter two days ago, most of the recent massacres have occurred in what is known as the "triangle of death," a fertile farming area south of the capital Algiers spotted with isolated villages. The killers are said to belong to gangs, perhaps rival gangs, affiliated with the extremist Armed Islamic Group (known as GIA), an amorphous organization that includes militant fundamentalists, wayward youths and common criminals. The GIA specializes in random terror attacks on civilians, car bombings and carefully planned night-time massacres.
Some reports say that the GIA has been infiltrated by agents of the military police. But the facts are hard to come by in Algeria, where the government tightly controls the diffusion of information and the low number of foreign journalists allowed in the country.
For example, it has been reported that President Liamine Zeroual, a retired general, recently restarted broken-off negotiations with the FIS, some of whose leaders have been released from detention in the past few months. Several analysts say that yesterday's declaration of a cease-fire by the FIS' armed wing shows that it has struck a secret deal with the government.
Others say the renewal of talks with the mainline Islamic group has sparked a crisis within the military establishment that is the real source of power in Algeria. They believe the army has long been split between what are called "eradicators," who want to decimate Islamic insurgents with firepower, and "conciliators" who support a political solution.
In what commentators call Algeria's "chronic opacity," few know the real truth. But the idea of a split within government and army ranks could perhaps explain the otherwise inexplicable absence of swift reaction to the recent spate of massacres by police and army units located close to many of the villages attacked.
According to this theory, the "eradicators" faction in the military are responsible for the lack of effective military response to the slaughter --and therefore for the high death tolls. They are said so strongly to oppose a political solution that they are willing to sacrifice Algerian lives to underline the need for an increased military crackdown.
Wherever the responsibility lies, can the world --as Germany's Kinkel asked-- do anything about the slaughterhouse that Algeria has become? It doesn't seem likely, if only because the government has consistently rejected all offers of mediation.
Only three weeks ago, after a particularly bloody massacre that killed some 300 civilians, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan telephoned President Zeroual to express concern over the level of violence and offer his good offices to begin a dialogue with the Islamic opposition. He was told that Algeria rejected all interference in its internal affairs and had strong institutions capable of leading the country out of the present crisis. Translated into plain language, that means the slaughters will continue in the foreseeable future.