Algeria Buys Some Time As Hostage Crisis Ends

THE recent liberation of three French hostages abducted by Islamic extremists allowed Algerians a few hours of relief and euphoria after two years of upheaval and violence.

Yet even as the country's government celebrates some much-needed good news in a conflict with Islamic radicals that has cost more than 2,500 lives since January 1992, observers say conditions portend more violent turmoil over the months ahead.

Extremist factions will want to quickly negate the ruling power's sense of victory, Algerian analysts say. At the same time, the progressive splintering of the Islamic movement evident in the abduction episode suggests even more volatility, they add.

``Despite some positive signs I'm convinced the situation will deteriorate over the short term,'' says Omar Belhouchet, director of the Algiers daily, El Watan. ``The extremists have their back to the wall, so they're going to want to say they exist. But the calls they've made up to now for a popular uprising haven't worked, so their only means will be more chaos.''

The Oct. 24 abduction of three French consular officials in Algiers followed a string of antiforeigner attacks that began in September and left dead seven foreigners - two French engineers, two Russian officers, and three employees of an Italian company.

The attacks on foreigners, who represent Algeria's economic and military ties with the non-Islamic world, came after a series of assassinations of pro-Western Algerian intellectuals.

Details of the French officials' abduction and their liberation on Oct. 30-31 remain fuzzy. Rumors abound that the government made contact and struck deals with different Islamist leaders - many of whom are in prison since their party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was banned in 1992. Some rumors even suggest that certain government circles had a hand in the recent ``kidnapping,'' saying it was designed to jolt France into renewing support for the Algiers regime.

Whatever really happened, the abduction appears to bolster the theory that the Islamic movement is deeply splintered. Most analysts believe the French officials were abducted by members of a faction opposed to any dialogue with the government. If so, this would support the arguments of those in the government who say their principle adversary is no longer the FIS, but rather those factions seeking a violent Islamic revolution.

In time, the government may start a dialogue with the more moderate wings of the FIS, which are assumed to represent the 3.3 million Algerians who voted for the party in December 1991.

The abduction also appears to have firmed support for the Algerian government among Western powers, particularly Paris. French officials have recently spoken in much harsher tones about Algeria's Islamic extremists, while cooperation between Algerian and French security forces during the abduction was reportedly very close. Paris has also moved to restrict and muffle the numerous Islamists who left Algeria for France after the FIS was banned.

In addition, sources in Algiers say United States officials have adopted a very supportive tone since Redha Malek, former ambassador to Washington, became prime minister in August.

In both cases, that support marks a shift from the veiled criticisms and distancing that followed Algeria's cancellation of multiparty elections in January 1992, after the first-round of voting indicated the FIS would win in a landslide.

Whether the antiforeigner attacks will have any long-term effect on Algeria's struggle to revive its economy remains to be seen. Noting that the attacks began after the naming of the Malek government - which supports World Bank participation in Algeria - and after approval of a new investment code favorable to foreign investment, Mr. Belhouchet says. ``There's a logic to the Islamists' attacks. They evolve with the government.''

Yet while he expects foreigners to remain sanguine about Algeria, others sound a different note. Italy, which a year ago was rivaling France as Algeria's principle foreign economic partner, has already dropped activity with Algeria ``to about a standstill'' says Roberto Aliboni, a Mediterranean specialist at the International Affairs Institute in Rome. ``These recent events will only reaffirm the hesitation on the Italian side to continue or expand investments in Algeria,'' he says.

The key to Algeria's future lies with its public, exhausted and disheartened by two years of conflict and decline. But even if public opinion has tired of violence, the Islamist movement maintains a certain dissimulated support.

For a number of analysts, this is true because the Islamists offer a program and point of view that are clear and simple in a period of complexity and confusion. ``At a time of unemployment, overcrowding, hardship, and fear, the Islamists propose a solution based simply on Algerians' basic beliefs,'' says one Algerian sociologist ``exiled'' in Paris. ``It's a coherent, appealing discourse.''

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