Beyond the Hijacking

PEOPLE around the world sighed with relief and gratitude Dec. 26 after French commandos successfully ended a televised airline hostage drama near Marseille. But the terrorists gained one of their principal objectives: worldwide attention to the civil war in Algeria.

Four Islamic extremists hijacked Air France flight AF 8969 in Algiers on Dec. 24. The Algerian and French governments allowed the plane to fly on to Marseille, in part because elite French special forces could be used there more easily, if needed. The 54-hour drama ended when the commandos made an all-out attack on the plane, releasing the 171 hostages and killing the four terrorists. The hijackers earlier had killed three passengers; no lives of hostages were lost during the assault.

The police found 20 sticks of dynamite aboard the plane, rigged with detonators. Passengers reported overhearing the terrorists speak of flying the plane to Paris and blowing it up. With this a possibility, and with further hostage executions imminent, French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur sent in the troops. It proved to be a sound decision and one that took political courage: Had the raid caused massive loss of life, Mr. Balladur would have been held responsible. Instead, his decisive action will boost his bid to become president of France in elections next spring.

Meanwhile, political turmoil and killing go on in Algeria, France's former colony. Islamist rebels are fighting a military government that has tacit French support. The chief goals of France and other Europeans seem to be to prevent a fundamentalist takeover - which might then sweep across North Africa - and to keep the violence out of Europe. However, not all the fundamentalist groups in Algeria advocate violence or denounce democracy. And the military government, while a source of temporary political stability, may not be the vehicle for long-range reform and a return to democracy.

More support is needed for diplomatic efforts that go beyond merely containing the violence. A resolution passed at the Dec. 13-14 Islamic summit in Casablanca called for ``illuminated Islam exempt from extremism or fanaticism.'' European governments should seek out and support governments and political groups in the Islamic world that support this moderate and widely held position.

The situation in Algeria is complex. But it would be wrong for Europe's skilled diplomats to set their sights for progress too low.

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