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Africa: Algeria Rebuffs EU, Then Accepts High-Level Mission

Algiers, 15 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In the past 24 hours, the military-backed Government of Algeria, where the massacre of innocents is now almost a daily event, has first rejected, then accepted the idea of what it calls an "information mission" of the European Union visiting the county. The reason for the mission would be to in investigate the causes of the slaughter.

Apparently, the abrupt shift had to do with the EU assuaging the North African country's national pride, which Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf suggested early yesterday (Jan. 12) had been offended by what he called the "low level" of senior civil servants named by Brussels for the mission. The Union had picked political directors from the foreign ministers of its so-called troika nations --Luxembourg, which held the EU presidency in the last six months of 1997; Britain, the current President; and Austria, due to take over on July 1. Attaf said that, in his words, "this level is n-o-t the most appropriate for broaching such important questions," and abruptly canceled the trip.

But later, speaking in a French radio interview (with Europe Number 1), Attaf said an EU mission would still be welcome to visit the country if it is made up of the Union's national governments' ministers. A spokesman for the British Foreign Office then quickly tried to appease the Algerians' wounded pride, saying "We do not rule out the possibility of a ministerial visit if EU partners agree." But such a visit, he indicated, could n-o-t take place before a scheduled meeting of EU foreign ministers in 11 days' time (Jan. 26).in Brussels.

Like much of the civilized world, West Europeans have been shocked by the recent escalation in carnage in Algeria's six-year-old civil and religious war. A former French colonial possession, Algeria is major supplier of oil and natural gas to France and other EU nations.

But the Algerian Government, in the view of some analysts little more than a front for the country's military dictatorship, has insisted that its fight against fundamentalist Islamic militants, in which up to 85,000 have been killed since 1992, is strictly a domestic affair. It blames the killing against "terrorists" from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA in the commonly used French acronym). This is a shadowy organization, possibly itself riven by rival grouplets, that espouses an extremist version of Islam.

Amnesty International and other human-rights groups allege that the regime itself is guilty of gross human-rights violations. They also say that Government security forces in some cases have inexplicably failed to stop massacres in villages close to army bases.

Some analysts have even posited splits within the army leadership as a partial explanation of why it and the government have not been able defend their citizens from Islamic terrorism. Some human-rights groups both inside and outside Algeria say that the Army has deployed half of its forces to defend against terrorist attacks against the oil and natural gas reserves in the country's south, which account for most of Algeria's hard-currency earnings. They also say that another third of the army has been detailed to protect its and the government's top leadership. They conclude that barely 20 percent of the army is available to protect ordinary citizens from terrorist attacks.

Those attacks have sharply escalated, both quantitatively and qualitatively, since the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadam at the end of last month (Dec. 30). A series of mostly nighttime murderous terrorist raids have killed, according to eye-witnesses, as many as 1,500 citizens --although the government's accounting reduces that figure by three-quarters. In addition, the Ramadam attackers are not satisfied by wholesale massacres of the kind familiar during the past several years. The terrorists are now seeking to exterminate the attacked villages and all its inhabitants.

Other countries, agencies and the United Nations itself have also been trying to send missions of inquiry to Algeria since at least the beginning of the Ramadam extermination campaign. Canadian officials say that Algiers has indicated it would welcome a visit by that country's legislators and journalists. The United Arab Emirates has offered to send a delegation to Algiers to help find a solution to the violence. The Arab League has already dispatched an envoy to Algiers for the same purpose. The EU's Left-controlled Parliament says a visit by some of its members has been approved by Algiers. And the UN's Geneva-based Human-Rights Commission is similarly seeking to send a delegation to view the sites of recent massacres and talk with survivors.

Until recently, Algeria ruled out all such outside help as interference in its internal affairs. But an awareness of the true extent and murderousness of the Algerian civil strife has now begun to penetrate not only the minds of officials elsewhere but also of their ordinary citizens, who watch images of the slaughter of their nightly television news broadcasts. That means that, whether the Algerian Government likes it or not., it will have to take into account from now on the dismay and disgust abroad about events inside the country. This is a development that suggests the Algerian problem could rapidly be internationalized --the only hope, in the view of many analysts, for a enduring end to the civil war.