Prague, 20 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In what European Union officials themselves call a "mission impossible," senior foreign-policy officials from three EU member states were due today to meet with Algerian officials to discuss fundamentalist Islamic terrorism in the North African country.
Massacres attributed to Islamic terrorists have escalated in Algeria since the beginning of the Moslem holy month of Ramadan three weeks ago, with some 1,100 men, women and children reported killed. The EU twice tried to intervene during this period, with its first request for a mission denied because the officials suggested by Brussels were too low-level for the Algerian Government.
Algeria's civil and religious strife began in 1992, when the military canceled elections expected to be won by the since-banned Islamic Salvation Front (known as FIS by its French acronym). The military-supported Government admits that some 60,000 people have been killed in the past six years. Human Rights groups such as Amnesty International estimate the total dead during the same period as closer to 85,000.
The three EU officials, deputy foreign ministers from Luxembourg, Britain and Austria, arrived in Algiers yesterday. They were scheduled to meet with Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf, as well as with members of the Algeria's parliamentary opposition and editors of its independent press.
The leader of the EU mission is Derek Fatchett, the junior foreign minister of Britain, which currently holds the Union's revolving presidency. Fatchett said yesterday that the group's objectives were "at this stage to open discussion, to enter into political dialogue, and to look for ways in which we can make a contribution to the greater humanitarian well-being of the Algerian people."
Even those modest goals could turn out to be impossible to achieve. The Algerian Government, considered by many analysts to be a rubber-stamp for the nation's military dictators, has insisted for months it will not allow what it calls "interference in its internal affairs."
Yesterday, pro-government newspapers heatedly denied allegations that the country's own security forces and para-military groups have been involved in some of the mass killings officially attributed to units of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA in the French acronym).
The same pro-Government journals denounced the EU as what they described as a hypocritical haven for Islamic terrorists, saying its member states should stop sheltering them. One of these newspapers called London "a sanctuary for the GIA," charged that the massacres had been planned, in its words, "on the banks of the Thames," and urged Britain to crack down on those responsible.
Only hours before the EU mission arrived, between 11 and 16 people were reported to have had their throats cut at a fake roadblock set up in the eastern province of Bouira. There has been no officials confirmation of these deaths. Earlier in the day, newspapers reported the murder of 10 other civilians, one a pregnant woman, in a shoot-out, bombings and other attacks over the past weekend.
Today's Algerian newspapers say at least 33 people were killed yesterday in various attacks blamed on suspected Islamic extremists. As usual, the murders were done with knives, with strong evidence of torture and mutilation before the actual deaths occurred.
As usual, too, mystery surrounds both the number and nature of most of the recent massacres. British Minister Fatchett told the BBC yesterday that the EU, in his phrase, "was not pointing the finger at anybody in the Algerian Government for responsibility (for the murders." But he added that it would be what he called "helpful" if the EU's mission had what he described as "a very clear statement and a clear understating of the cause of these events --(that is), who's responsible for them"
Fatchett also said that the EU mission was necessary because of what he called "the sense of grief, shock and horror (over the massacres) among the people of Europe." He added: "This is behavior that is wholly unacceptable, something we just simply cannot understand." But how much he and the other EU mission members will actually learn in Algiers in 24 hours is open to considerable conjecture.