Seeking Aid, Algeria Hints At Elections With Islamists

EIGHT months into a campaign of "eradication" against armed Islamic opponents, Algeria's military-backed government is signaling new interest in a political solution to end the violence.

On the anniversary of Algerian independence from France on July 5, a date could be announced for new ele-ctions that would include the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front, according to reports that first surfaced in the Saudi dailies al-Hayat and Asharq al-Awsat.

The FIS has been banned since January 1992, when the Algerian military canceled elections the Islamic opposition seemed likely to win.

Armed Islamic groups have since laun-ched a campaign of terror that has brought the nation close to civil war. Since 1992, some 40,000 people have been killed by Islamic groups or government forces.

Algerian authorities firmly rejected a Jan. 13 peace proposal signed by all political opposition groups in Rome, and downplayed a rally in Algiers this month to demonstrate popular support for the plan, which 14,000 people attended.

Instead, the government is pursuing its own strategy of accommodation with the FIS, after years of a hard-line policy against Islamists that has brought no solutions. But analysts question whether this bid is a genuine effort toward peace or merely an attempt to placate world concern over the violence.

A choice of the people

After the Algiers rally, the state-censored Algerian national press began printing unconfirmed reports of secret "contacts" between Algeria's military-backed government and key FIS leaders.

According to these reports, a representative of Algerian President Liamine Zeroual met with Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, traditional leaders of the FIS, now under house arrest. Another FIS leader was taken from his prison cell to take part in the meetings.

On June 25, Algerian Interior Minister Abderrahmane Meziane Cherif told the French weekly Le Journal de Dimanche that Algerian authorities would "respect a choice of the people in favor of the Islamic Salvation Front." President Zeroual has called for new presidential elections by the end of the year.

French interests

The French government has a huge stake in Algeria, its former colony, since an all-out war there could bring a tidal wave of refugees to French shores. It has taken a careful public stance on these developments. In his first public comments on Algeria since becoming prime minister last month, Alain Juppe recently repeated France's traditional policy of "nonindifference, noninterference" toward its former colony, but avoided any reference to rumored negotiations.

"It was a minimal declaration, strictly in the line of previous public policy: noninterference in Algeria's domestic processes," says Nicole Grimaux, who follows Algeria for the Center for International Research. "As for what is going on behind the scenes, this government has been silent."

As foreign minister under the previous French government, Mr. Juppe consistently called for a political dialogue in Algeria.

France has been Algeria's primary sponsor in debt negotiations with international bankers and has advocated more aid from the European Union for the extremely poor country. Despite rumors that the new French government would cut bilateral aid to Algeria, this year's aid package is likely to hold "relatively steady" at $1 billion, according to the French Foreign Ministry.

The reported meetings between Algerian authorities and FIS leaders have occurred as both EU members and international bankers make key decisions on support for Algeria. On July 17, debt-rescheduling negotiations are set to begin with the Paris Club of government creditors.

"The French government has become extremely prudent" in dealings with Algeria, says a French civil servant who closely follows Algerian policy and writes under the name Lucile Provost. "The number of visas granted to Algerians has been cut to almost nothing and operations have been stepped up against Islamic terrorist networks in France. But the real test of France's commitment to aid Algeria will come with next year's aid budget."

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