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Algeria: EU Parliament Mission Marks Slight Impact

Prague, 6 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A delegation from the European Union's Parliament is due to arrive in Algeria on Sunday (Feb. 8) to begin a five-day, information-gathering mission to a country where the murder of civilians has become a daily fact of life. The visit of the nine-member delegation will take place three weeks after an inconclusive and frustrating 24-hour mission by high EU officials, whose offers of assistance to the Algiers Government were turned down out of hand.

The European Parliament members are due to meet with Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf as well as with representatives of all parties in Algeria's legislature and editors of privately owned newspapers. Today, in advance of the mission, Algeria's parliament has scheduled an "urgent debate" on security issues and the country's on-going bloody religious strife. Last week, the legislators voted overwhelmingly in favor of the debate after expressing doubts over Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia's recent claim that the Government is gaining the upper hand over Algeria's Islamic fundamentalist insurgency.

In the past month alone, more than 1,000 men, women and children were reported by eye-witnesses to have been slaughtered in a series of incidents around the country attributed to Islamic fundamentalist terrorist gangs. The military-backed Government's official toll of the dead during the same period is less than 300, a common discrepancy throughout Algeria's six-year-old civil war.

Overall, the Government said last month, some 26,500 people have been killed and another 21,000 injured since the insurgency broke out in 1992. Human-rights organizations like Amnesty International estimate the total killed during the six years to be as many as 85,000. They say they base their assessments on eye-witness accounts.

The slaughter began after the military canceled the second round of general elections likely to be won by the Islamic Salvation Front (known as FIS in the French acronym) and banned the party from political life. No FIS members were invited to participate in today's debate in the Algerian legislature, and it is unlikely that EU parliamentarians will meet with FIS representatives during their visit.

Nor, said Algeria's Foreign Ministry Wednesday (Feb. 4), does the delegation's official schedule include any trips to the sites of recent massacres. The head of the mission, French conservative Andre Soulier, said the same day that the delegation was hoping to meet with surviving victims of recent massacres. He said (to AFP) that, in his phrase, "it is not inconceivable that victims will come to see us."

Last month, during their brief visit (Jan. 19-20), senior EU officials were also unable to visit any massacre sites. Upon their return to Europe, the officials called for greater openness from the Algerian Government. Their remarks evoked a frigid response from Algiers, which said that the Europeans were trying to interfere in the country's domestic affairs.

Some reports in Western --and especially French-- media have suggested that Algerian army personnel or para-military troops have infiltrated gangs associated with the Islamic fundamentalist Armed Islamic Group, and participated in some killings. The Algerian Government has denied this vehemently.

Whomever they allowed to see, the EU parliamentarians' visit will mark a small change in the Government's attitude. Algiers has long resisted such visits by outsiders. It has also repeatedly turned down offers of humanitarian aid, saying such assistance amounted to meddling in the country's internal affairs.