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Frightened Algerians Flee Nation's Political Carnage : Violence: Many find uneasy refuge in France as Islamic extremists, government hit squads threaten and kill.

March 19, 1995|SCOTT KRAFT and ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PANTIN, France — For months, Lazhari had been locked in his home in Algeria, faxing articles to his newspaper, enduring death threats from Islamic militants and battling the muzzle of government censors.

But as more of his colleagues and neighbors were killed, he couldn't stop wondering: Would his be a bullet to the head or a knife across the throat? He hoped for a bullet.

"I never thought I'd leave Algeria," Lazhari said the other day, nervously smoking a Gauloise in the suburban Paris apartment where he stays with friends. "But clearly there is a limit to what one can take."

The 42-year-old journalist asked that his last name not be published, to protect his wife, a teacher, and two daughters, ages 14 and 16, still trying to get a French visa in Algiers, the capital. "Every time the phone rings now, I worry it's someone calling to tell me my family's been killed," Lazhari said.

Lazhari is one of thousands of Algerian refugees arriving these days in France. They include professors and doctors. Engineers and civil servants. Musicians and artists. People from all walks of life who share one characteristic--they are all targets of the day-to-day carnage in Algeria.

Their flight to France, where they aren't especially welcomed by the anti-immigration government, illustrates the depth of their desperation and fear. And the headlines in the French papers quickly justify those fears.

In December, an Air France plane was hijacked by Islamic guerrillas, who were killed before they could blow up the aircraft. A car bomb planted by Islamic militants in January killed 42 passersby in downtown Algiers. In February, the authorities killed several hundred Muslim prisoners while putting down an Algiers prison riot.

But much of the killing in Algeria, by government hit squads on one side and Islamic extremists on the other, no longer makes big headlines. In recent days alone, a woman who refused to wear a Muslim veil was raped and killed, an architect was beheaded, an Algerian U.N. official was shot to death and a union official was slain by a gang that then crushed a boy to death while fleeing in a car.

By the government's count, 20 civilians were killed every day last year in Algeria. The experts say the true figure, including civilians killed by government forces, is probably much higher. U.S. officials estimate that 30,000 Algerians have died in the three-year civil war between the government and Islamic guerrillas.

Algeria's bloodletting began in January, 1992, when the army canceled parliamentary elections that the Islamic Salvation Front, known by its French acronym FIS, appeared on the verge of winning.

Now the extremism of those denied power clashes daily with the ruthlessness of the military regime. The civilian population is left to suffer under 25% unemployment, a critical shortage of housing, raging inflation and, of course, the daily threat of indiscriminate death.

The targeting of foreigners by the most radical Islamic groups has scared away foreign investment; more than 70 foreigners, most of them French citizens, have been killed.

Western governments, including the United States and France, have been pushing the Algerian government to negotiate with its opponents.

In January, a peace proposal was drawn up in Rome by the outlawed FIS and seven other secular and Islamic opposition groups. The plan urged negotiations with the Algerian government on a broad-based transitional administration that would lead to democratic elections. But it included demands that the government release political prisoners, legalize the FIS and pledge that the army would stay out of politics.

The plan was "a positive development that offered real hope for a settlement," a U.S. diplomat familiar with the country said recently. And even the most radical Islamic faction, the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, though not a signatory, urged the government to accept the plan. The GIA has claimed responsibility for most of the killings of foreigners and journalists, as well as the Christmas Eve hijacking of the Air France plane.

But the Algerian government, in what U.S. officials describe as a "serious mistake," has flatly rejected the Rome plan and relaunched a crackdown on Islamic guerrillas.

And the insurgency appears to be moving toward a full-scale confrontation.

Algeria's disparate Islamist factions are pushing to bring together all fighters under a single command, a development that, if successful, would almost certainly increase the bloodshed.

Anwar Haddam, an FIS spokesman in the United States, is urging Western governments to use the threat of withdrawing economic aid to force the government to accept the Rome peace plan.

"Unless there is a strong signal from the West, I don't see any hope for a political solution," Haddam said. "That means the solution will be through escalation of the armed struggle. That's not what we want. But there seems no longer to be an alternative."

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