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Algerian Insurgents Declare a Cease-Fire

Violence: Military branch of main Islamic party seeks to separate itself from extremists blamed for massacres.

September 25, 1997|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — In a rare glimmer of good news for a country immersed in bloodshed and destruction, the armed wing of Algeria's main Islamic party announced Wednesday that it is calling a unilateral cease-fire to take effect in six days.

The decision by the Islamic Salvation Army--the military branch of the banned Islamic Salvation Front--was not expected to halt the country's violence in the short term because rival, and much more ruthless, militias remain active in the countryside.

But the move was welcomed as a signal that the most violent groups--those blamed for repeated mass murders of civilians like the reported slaughter Tuesday of up to 200 people in an Algiers suburb--will become increasingly isolated and marginalized.

Eventually, analysts said, that could lead to a gradual reduction of the carnage that has claimed more than 60,000 lives since 1992.

The guerrilla group, known by its French initials AIS, faxed the two-page cease-fire announcement to news agencies Wednesday, but it was dated three days earlier. Signed by AIS commander Madani Mezerag, the communique said all military actions should halt by Oct. 1.

For months, rumors of secret contacts between the AIS and the army command had been circulating in Algeria.

Published reports had linked the possible truce to the government's release in July of two jailed leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, the country's most popular political party. The AIS is affiliated with the party.

In its communique, the AIS confirmed that such contacts have been taking place "for a long time."

"The national emir of the Islamic Salvation Army orders all chiefs of companies fighting under his command to stop operations . . . and urges all groups committed to the interests of religion and the nation to rally to this call so that the enemy hiding behind abominable massacres can be unmasked," the statement said.

The statement also denounced a recent spate of atrocities against civilian populations on the outskirts of Algiers, labeling it "abominable carnage rarely seen in modern human history."

An estimated 300 people were killed in one such episode Aug. 29, and about 200 were estimated to have died early Tuesday morning in the suburb of Baraki.

The AIS communique suggested that such killings were the work of extremists determined to derail any chance of a rapprochement between the government and the FIS.

With its truce, the AIS said it will help expose those people still perpetrating massacres, including "perverse extremist" leaders of the main rival militia, the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA.

The absolutist GIA, which arose early in the anti-government campaign, has proclaimed death for all its opponents and has been blamed for some of the most horrific acts of violence in recent years, including rape, decapitation of victims and disembowelment of pregnant women.

Although there was no immediate reaction to the cease-fire from the government in Algiers, the pro-government newspaper El Moudjahid welcomed the statement, describing it as "a major turning point."

"This call, if borne out by events, heralds a major political separation that will both speed up the total decomposition of terrorism and the country's return," it said.

One editor in Algiers said most people are still largely in the dark about the truce and too exhausted by violence and terror to put much faith in what little they have heard.

"People have lost their trust in everything. There is a general feeling of depression," said Ali Fodil of the Al Chorouk weekly.

Besides, he said, some of the violent groups have simply become criminal gangs.

"Do you think someone who carries out this kind of monstrosity would listen to, or abide by, a deal between the government and the opposition?" he asked.

Gawad Soltan, an Egyptian political analyst, observed that for the past few months there has already been a "tacit cease-fire" between the government and the FIS, which now becomes official.

What is most important now, he said, is for the government to respond by starting to re-integrate the FIS and its supporters into the country's political life.

The Islamic insurgency in Algeria dates to January 1992, when the military aborted the former French colony's first free elections rather than let the presumed winner, the FIS, turn the country of 29 million people into an Islamic state.

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