Algerians Reluctantly Side With Military Against Terrorists

Between 'Dark Forces'

The 9-mm semiautomatic pistol is pulled furtively from the bottom of the leather briefcase, a source of security for its civilian owner in Algeria. His wife was a judge, the man explains, killed by "Islamic" terrorist gunmen outside their home in 1995.

"Now this is my only friend," says the man, a former government official, before thrusting his pistol back into his bag.

For those like him close to Algeria's ruling power - a shadowy group made up of military chiefs with President Liamine Zeroual, a retired general, at its helm - guns represent the only way to defeat terrorism.

But coming to grips with this insurgency has not been easy. Though it began as an Islamist protest in 1992, after the military annulled national elections that Islamists were set to win, it has turned into one of the most violent guerrilla conflicts in the world with a death toll of some 65,000.

Popular suspicion of the military - coupled with thousands of disappearances and human rights abuses at the hands of security forces - has made Algerians feel caught between two dark forces.

Recent signs point toward increasing government military action - with some success - and a gradual renewal of trust in the military. Such changes are easing the debate about how best to solve Algeria's crisis.

Some argue that Algeria's rulers are battling among themselves, that conciliateurs led by President Zeroual want to talk with Islamists and include them in a solution, while hard-line eradicateurs want to exterminate the violent guerrillas and keep Islamists outside the system.

"This analysis is very marketable. But the Army is the deep, real power in this country," says a well-respected Algerian newspaper columnist who asked not to be named. "Zeroual is their choice, their candidate, their spokesman."

Diplomats here say there are few signs of division within the military.

"You can't speak of a fissure or rifts of any serious scale," says a Western diplomat. "On key issues, Zeroual and his key generals see eye to eye. The idea that there are warring factions, or that tension has reached a dangerous point, is overstated."

The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was outlawed after the canceled early 1992 election and went underground. But extremely violent offshoots have since grown bolder in their attacks on official and civilian targets. Most notorious among them is the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which has been responsible for several spectacular massacres on the outskirts of the capital, Algiers, since summer.

Outgoing American Ambassador Ronald Neumann told the US Senate in October that "because the conflict is so complex, its solution will require more than a security response alone can offer.... The armed groups have always been able to refill their ranks from among the mass of angry young people who suffer from an array of economic and social ills."

Earlier, he said the US "supports" Zeroual's economic and political reforms, though "doubts linger about the military's respect for the rule of law and [its] willingness to allow parliament to develop real power."

"The government is strong ... but most agree that the biggest danger for [it] is democracy," says Salima Ghezali, editor of the La Nation, a newspaper critical of the regime that has not been able to publish for a year. "The regime is not afraid of fundamentalist ideology, because sometimes they prefer 'nice' fundamentalists to 'nice' democrats," he says. "The moderate Hamas party is not a threat to the regime, but if we had a large, truly democratic party it would be a danger."

Though Zeroual has been seen as a conciliateur, his mind was changed after a visit to FIS leaders in prison in 1993, says another Western diplomat. The then minister of defense asked if FIS would foreswear violence and join a national dialogue. "FIS said no, and Zeroual's line ever since has been: 'They had their chance, that's it,' " the diplomat says.

The recent strong military moves seem only to have stemmed from the latest high-profile massacres that have virtually driven Algerians into the arms of the military.

For human rights activists, however, any easing of the violence - even if by military success - may be an improvement.

"Anybody can disappear and be killed, and no one takes responsibility; it is almost impossible to find them now," says Mostapha Bouchachi, a human rights lawyer who says 95 percent of his clients have been tortured.

Many of these abuses are a function of the extremist challenge to the military, he says: "If we can stop the violence [of the GIA], a lot of human rights violations would improve."

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