Taking Cover in Algiers as Militants, Regime Trade Blows

SINCE the Armed Islamic Group, a shadowy guerrilla faction, threatened to kill all expatriates remaining in Algeria after Dec. 1, foreigners have rushed for the few remaining places on flights out of the country. Some were too slow: Militants murdered 16 Europeans in the first two weeks of December.

Those remaining keep a low profile, rarely venturing beyond secure hotels or work compounds. United States diplomats who have not evacuated say they use armored cars if they leave their Embassy at all. And the streets of Algiers are deserted by dusk because of curfews.

``Most people are taking precautions,'' says a European who decided to stay. ``But how long can we live like this? At some point, we have to return to normal.''

``To some extent, the Islamic terrorists are winning,'' says Keith Bloomfield, first secretary at the British Embassy in Algiers. ``Their aim is to get foreigners to leave the country as a way to destabilize the regime. They've already caused large numbers of Algerian intellectuals and foreigners to leave.''

Dozens of Algerians - intellectuals, judges, police - have also been killed each week since the deadline expired, plunging the country into its most serious crisis since January 1992, when the Army canceled elections that the opposition Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was expected to win.

Alarmed by the subsequent unrest, the military appointed a five-man presidency, which set about attempting to break up the FIS, expelling its leaders and condemning 360 alleged militants to death. Since then, nearly 15,000 police have been drafted into the Algiers region alone.

``The government destroyed the FIS systematically,'' Mr. Bloomfield says. ``Now it has turned out that the FIS wasn't the enemy. By arresting all the FIS moderates, the government effectively ensured that the extremists took over.''

Members of the French-speaking Algerian elite - inheritors of the French colonial system - say that if the FIS had been allowed to form a government, Islamic extremism would have spread to neighboring countries.

While Islam is the national religion, Algeria can be very European. For 132 years - until winning independence in 1962 - the country was an integral part of France. Taxi drivers play rock music, and even the white-walled buildings in the capital resemble Marseilles. ``This is hardly Iran,'' says Mehdi, a student, as a troop of party-goers skip into one of Algiers's hotels.

Yet behind this facade lies a deeply traditional Muslim culture. For many, the divide is a personal one. ``Algerians themselves are divided,'' says Sofian Bencharif, a former journalist for the Algerian newspaper El Watan, ``divided between disco and tradition. Each person has both these things inside him.''

Ordinary people may be divided, but the authorities have reacted to the militant challenge with extreme force. Masked special-forces officers - nicknamed ``ninjas'' - rush through the streets of Algiers in trucks bristling with weapons. International human rights groups accuse Algeria's paramilitary forces of torture and summary executions.

But observers say that the government - and the elite that supports it - face a long-term problem from Algeria's growing underclass. Two-thirds of the population is under the age of 26, most of whom lack both work and a command of French - still required for most jobs - and the country's birth rate is doubling the population every 23 years. The FIS relied on this group for massive support in the December 1991 elections.

For now, ordinary Algerians are keeping their heads down. ``People don't want to know about politics any more,'' Mr. Bencharif says. ``They know the government lies to them, but they also don't believe in the violence. They're simply scared.''

Yet the violence looks set to continue. ``I expect the killings to go on,'' Bloomfield says. ``The more atrocities are committed, the harder it is for anyone to be moderate. I don't think anybody's safe now.''

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