Algiers, 7 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- With Algeria's six-year-old civil war having escalated in recent days from wholesale massacres to outright extermination, the international community has finally begun to call for some kind of multilateral action that could serve to stem the blood-shed. But Algeria's military-backed Government continues to refuse any kind of international intervention, whether by a single country like France ---the country's former colonial ruler-- or by the 15-nation European Union, or even by the world-wide United Nations of which it is a member.
Since late last week, the UN, the EU, France, Germany, Britain and the U.S. have all called for some kind of collective action in Algeria. Their appeals were sparked by a new and qualitatively different kind of horrific Islamic fundamentalist terrorism that erupted a week ago on the first day of the Moslem holy month of Ramadan. The new attacks wiped out entire villages in the western part of the country and reportedly slaughtered more than a thousand men, women and children --with rape, mutilation and torture commonly employed. They also graphically demonstrated that the carnage which began in 1992, with the cancellation of elections likely to bring an Islamic government to power, has reached a new level of violence --and that the Algerian Army is unable to prevent such slaughter.
The Algerian Government, headed by former general and now President Liamine Zeroual, admits that some 60,000 people have perished since 1992. Amnesty International and other human-rights watch groups say the true figure is closer to 85,000 --more than the combined death figures for the recent wars in Bosnia and the Russian republic of Chechnya. Similarly, the Algerian Government has claimed that, despite credible testimony from survivors of the past week's exterminations, the true figures are less than half those reported by eye-witnesses. This is quite in keeping with the Government's long-term policy of playing down the strength of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in the country and insisting that it and the army have the situation well in hand.
That policy was responsible for the Government's angry reactions to recent calls for international action. Three months ago, EU foreign ministers carefully stated they were "available for any action requested of them by the Algerian authorities." The next day, Zeroual's Government called in a EU representative to emphasize what it described as Algeria's "unchangeable position concerning meddling in its internal affairs." Nevertheless today, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook of Britain, the current EU President, said again that the Union wanted to discuss with Algiers ways of preventing the massacres and added Brussels was willing to provide aid to survivors.
The UN, too, has asked the Algerian Government for its human-rights experts on torture and summary executions to make a visit to the country later this year. Yesterday in Geneva, UN Commissioner for Human Rights --and former Irish President -- Mary Robnson said her representatives have asked Algiers to enable the visit to take place "as soon as possible." A (unnamed) spokesman for the Algerian mission to the UN in Geneva said there was a standing invitation for the UN expert on summary and arbitrary executions, Wally Ndiaye, to visit the country. But, predictably, he stressed the mission should not be regarded as an investigation.
On Monday, the French Government's issued a statement underlining what it called the Algerian people's "legitimate right to be protected (and its) profound shock and indignation over the (recent) acts of barbaric savagery." The French statement represent a significant intervention by Paris which, fearful of retaliatory Algerian Islamic attacks on its own territory, has been far more reticent in the past. Within hours, however, an Algerian Foreign Ministry spokesman (unnamed) reacted by protesting what he called France's "interference" in the country's internal affairs. He said that the French statement was the result of either "a lack of understanding or a deliberate willingness to manipulate the facts."
In the same vein yesterday, the Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. Ambassador Cameron Hume to protest against a State Department appeal to Algiers, made 24 hours earlier, to allow an international investigation into the massacres. The official Algerian news agency (APS) quoted an unnamed senior official as reminding Hume of the Government's "categorical rejection of any idea of an international commission," which, the official said, could only help to absolve those behind the killings and cast doubt on the "identity of the perpetrators of terrorism.'
But in fact there are strong doubts not only in the international community but among the few Algerian and foreign --mostly French-- journalists allowed, with great restrictions, to report from inside the country. Many of them acknowledge that the largest part of the slaughter is clearly the responsibility of the extremist Islamic Armed Group (known as GIA in its French acronym), and in several cases apparently the result of warfare among rival GIA groups.
But the journalists, and Algiers-based Western diplomats, also frequently wonder aloud whether reported splits within the army command, and the use of para-military groups by the government, is not behind many of the killings. How else, they ask, to explain the fact that the army has repeatedly not intervened in night-long slaughters of villagers almost within earshot of its rural bases.
That theory is also supported by one of France's most respected experts on Algerian terrorism, Xavier Philippe, the author of a recent report to the French Defense Ministry called, "The New Menace: Algeria's GIA Terrorists." Philippe also says that the GIA Islamic fanatics are using a strategy already employed in the past by Peru's ruthless Marxist "Shining Light" terrorists and by the infamous Cambodian Communist Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, responsible for the killing of about one million of his countrymen. He says that the strategy explains why the GIA has recently shifted its focus from the countryside around the Capital to the country's until-now comparatively peaceful western half.
Basically, the strategy is a variant of Mao Tse-Tung's old notion of winning the countryside first, forcing rural residents into urban conglomerations, then attacking them, thereby destabilizing the incumbent government, and quickly taking control of power. Philippe suggests the GIA has added one new important variant, moving its groups closer and closer to Algeria's so-called Fourth Zone in the west, where most of the impoverished country's oil and natural-gas resources --its largest source of foreign income-- are located and where the army is largely concentrated.
None of these rumors, reports and hypotheses are verifiable because the government controls all journalists with an iron hand. Few foreigners are allowed in, and when they are they are usually provided with what the government calls an "escort" to screen them from direct sources. Yesterday, three French journalists now in Algeria discussed their problems in a broadcast on Radio France Internationale. They all said that visas were hard to come by, direct contacts with massacre survivors rare and, therefore, that they had to rely for reliable information on Algerian journalists, who themselves were largely kept silent or censored by the Government.
As for the idea of an international inquiry commission, the journalists were doubtful the government would ever allow an objective investigation. In any case, they added, the time for an effective inquiry was probably past. One of them recalled a recent --and, remarkably, uncensored-- cartoon in the French-language "Le Matin" newspaper published in Algiers. In the cartoon, the artist known as "Slim" depicted an EU official emotionally asking an Algerian citizen just who was responsible for the bodies scattered around them. The EU official, however, had neglected to notice that the man he addressed himself was carrying his chopped-off head in his hand.