Algeria's security tied to political freedom

* Bouteflika hopes to use third term to end violence

* Former rebels lack political voice

* Bouteflika victory expected as reward for stability

By Lamine Chikhi, Reuters, 6 April 2009

ALGIERS, April 6 (Reuters) - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika hopes to use his likely third term to end the violence still troubling his oil producing state, but can he do that without granting a political voice to former rebels?

Bouteflika is expected to win a April 9 presidential vote by a comfortable margin -- recognition, his supporters say, of his achievements in restoring stability after a decade-long civil conflict.

Offshoots of the Islamist rebel groups that waged that conflict are now affiliated to al Qaeda and mount sporadic attacks in Algeria, an OPEC member country of 34 million that lies on the doorstep of the European Union.

Some believe Bouteflika's refusal to allow a return to politics by the leaders of the defunct Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) who fought the state in the 1990s undermines efforts to persuade the mostly younger remaining rebels to disarm.

The political ambition of the influential, middle-aged former rebels is undimmed. But any attempt by them to stand against Bouteflika in the vote would have been blocked by the government, analysts say.

The former leaders have renounced violence and were granted amnesties under 72-year-old Bouteflika's "national reconciliation" plan.

The amnesty offered social rights to former rebels and compensation for their families, and some of them have gone on to prosper as businessmen and traders.

But the amnesty did not specify if they would be allowed to enter politics. No law exists to stop the former rebel leaders taking part in elections but over the years efforts by top FIS figures to run as candidates or form parties have in effect been blocked by the government.

"Obviously, not opening the political field to former Islamic militants will discourage al Qaeda's rebels to accept Bouteflika's amnesty offer," Boualem Ghomrassa, a security expert with Algerian daily El Khabar, told Reuters.

Four former leaders of the remnant insurgency who surrendered in 2005 and 2008 urged the remaining rebels on Thursday to join them.

"In the recent past, we were your companions. Our hearts are with you, though we know nothing of your current situation," they said in a joint statement sent to media including Reuters.

"We invite you to join us and return to your families, who are waiting for you. Dear brothers and friends, don't miss this valuable opportunity."

FORGIVENESS

Bouteflika seems unlikely to make concessions to former rebels in the near future. With the security forces more firmly in control than in previous years and an election win all but assured, he is under little pressure to give ground.

He told hundreds of voters in the city of Tiaret last month that the former rebels should stop complaining.

"Those who have attacked the people, tarnished Algeria's image abroad, committed crimes and massacres against women and children, must acknowledge their actions and ask the people for forgiveness," Bouteflika said.

"The doors of national reconciliation remain open," Bouteflika added, referring to limited amnesty provisions.

Allowing the former rebels to re-enter political life would be a hugely symbolic additional step because it was precisely this issue which triggered the violent conflict.

Algeria plunged into chaos in 1992 after the military-backed authorities decided to cancel legislative elections a radical Islamic party was poised to win.

In the decade of violence that followed, up to 150,000 people were killed.

LAYING DOWN ARMS

Bouteflika helped steer the country out of the spiral of violence through a combination of uncompromising security measures and an amnesty to those rebels who were not deemed responsible for the worst acts of violence.

The violence has now declined sharply, though rebels who describe themselves as the al Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb plant bombs and fight gun battles with police.

The former rebels -- who deny any connection to the violence underway now -- said they were angry that Bouteflika's national reconciliation process did little to give them a political voice.

"If you want to convince al Qaeda militants to lay down arms you must provide guarantees that the political space is not closed, but today Bouteflika is closing it until an unknown date," said Madani Mezrag, former chief of the FIS's armed wing.

That view was echoed by another former rebel leader, Abdelhak Layada, a founder of the now disbanded Armed Islamic Group (GIA), blamed by the authorities for a series of massacres during the 1990s.

"We do support Abdelaziz Bouteflika, but in return we want to be allowed to have normal political activity. Closing the political arena is not fair and it is dangerous too," Layada told Reuters.

But Mounir Boudjemaa, a specialist on security issues and editor of the Liberte daily, said access to political life was of little consequence to the al Qaeda rebels.

"They are not really interested in politics but rather in a rescue door to come back to society. And the rescue door is still open for them," he said. (Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Editing by Christian Lowe)

 
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