France probes into old murders

France probes into old murders

The Wahington Times 20-08-2004

Tibehirine, Algeria, Aug. 20 (UPI) — Armand Veilleux does not seem the kind of man to meddle in bilateral relations — much less in gruesome slayings many would rather forget. Yet the soft-spoken Cistercian clergyman has done just that recently, when he helped launch a French inquiry into the 1996 murders of seven Roman Catholic monks in this mountainous village, roughly 60 miles from Algiers.

« I didn’t want to implicate my order in an affair that may affect French-Algerian relations, » Veilleux said, in a recent telephone interview from Brussels. « But to have one individual do it kamikaze style — that’s not a problem for them. »

Prodded by Veilleux and a family of one of the monks — not to mention startling confessions by former Algerian agents — France has recently opened an investigation into circumstances of the men’s deaths, which were ostensibly authored by Islamist militants. In February, the case took another murky turn, when a French reporter investigating the monks’ fate abruptly died.

« What the plaintiffs want is the truth, » said Patrick Baudouin, a Paris-based lawyer representing the family of one of the assassinated monks, along with a member of their Cistercian order. « They hope that if justice is rendered in the affair of the monks of Tibehirine, then it can rekindle the hopes of other victims or families of victims. And that impunity will cease to be the master of this country, which is Algeria. »

But the new French inquiry also risks creating a diplomatic headache for Algeria as it emerges from the 1990s civil war, which pitted Islamist extremists against the military-backed government. And it raises questions about when — if ever — the country will come to terms with its bloody past.

Indeed, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika suggested as much earlier this year. « There is certainly a mystery, but also a problem of timing, of time, » Bouteflika said in an interview when asked about the Tibehirine assassination. « Not all truth is good to say when it is hot. »

The seven monks lived in a stone farmhouse outside this small village, fringed by pine and apple trees, and tucked into the soaring hills of northern Algeria.

When Islamist violence tore the country apart, they continued to care for the sick and to visit their Arab neighbors. When the village mosque collapsed with age, they offered up a room in their red-tiled monastery as a Muslim prayer hall.

But when the terrorists came knocking on a March day in 1996, they disappeared. Two months later, their heads were found near Tibehirine, and the monks became one of the bloodiest footnotes of a conflict that killed up to 150,000 people. Islamist extremists were blamed, and the case of the Cistercian monks was shelved, if not forgotten.

The monks are hardly Algeria’s only lingering mystery. Along with tens of thousands of Algerians killed by Islamist guerrillas, some 7,000 others simply disappeared in the fray. Their families and human rights groups suggest many may have been arrested and possibly killed by Algerian security forces. Despite Bouteflika’s promises to delve into their deaths, not a single case has been resolved to date.

Complicating the matter are longstanding reports that Islamist extremists and government forces sometimes collaborated, even as they fought against each other. As violence raged during the 1990s, and whole villages were decimated just a few miles from army barracks, Algerians began asking a troubling question: Who is killing whom?

That question has not escaped the tiny town of Tibehirine, where cars jostle with donkey carts for space on the rutted roads. Even today, residents reminisce fondly about the French « babas, » but clam up about their deaths.

« Everybody knew them, » said 18-year-old Samia Sedoque, as she walked past the gray cement walls of the old monastery one sunny afternoon. « Sick people would go to them, and they would treat them. They gave us medications and clothes. »

Worker Ahmani Sami reluctantly opened the heavy iron gates of the monastery, which the Cistercians abandoned after the killings. Asked about the 1996 events, he laughed nervously and shook his head.

« I can’t talk about that, » he said, before an Algerian policeman came and shooed a reporter away.

Eight years ago, the Tibehirine saga appeared clear cut. Djamel Zitouni, then head of the radical Armed Islamic Group, issued a pair of statements in the spring of 1996 claiming responsibility for the monks’ abduction and murder.

French officials endorsed the conclusion of the Algerian government — that the Islamic Group was to blame. Even the head of Algeria’s Roman Catholic community, Algiers Archbishop Henri Tessier, agreed the monks were victims of Islamic extremism.

But statements by several former Algerian agents now living overseas suggest Zitouni once acted as a double agent for Algerian security forces. Indeed, the former head of Algeria’s military security, Abdelkader Tigha, claimed in interviews that the monks’ kidnapping was planned by Algerian officials simply to get the monks out of a highly contested area. But the plan went badly awry, he said, and extremists ultimately assassinated the monks.

Tigha now lives in the Netherlands, where he is seeking political refugee status. He is among a number of witnesses being sought in the newly opened French investigation.

« The monks sensed themselves to be in the middle of two violence — the violence of the Islamists, and the violence of the army, » said Veilleux, who served as spokesman for the Cistercian order after the monks’ murder. « They did what they could to remain neutral. But both sides wanted people to take positions. They didn’t want people to be different. »

Veilleux’s own doubts began growing as early as 1996, he said, when he was stonewalled both by Algerian officials and by the French embassy in Algiers as he sought to learn more about the monks’ death.

« I think without a doubt the French government knew a lot, and there were negotiations, » he said. « I think they did what they could to save the monks. But with whom did they negotiate? With the Algerian secret services? With the Islamists? They’ve never said. And it’s about time they say. »

More recently, French freelance reporter Didier Contant fell to his death from a seven-story Paris apartment shortly after returning from reporting on the Tibehirine monks in Algeria. French police ruled his death a suicide. But Algeria’s more sensationalist media rushed to dub Contant « the eighth victim of Tibehirine, » and to suggest he had been pushed.

For its part, Paris is handling the monks’ investigation carefully at a time it is repairing frayed ties with its former colony. A spokesman for the French Foreign Affairs Ministry pointed to previous official statements saying no proof existed that Algeria’s military had a hand in the monks’ kidnapping.

But the government has also assigned a top antiterrorist judge to the investigation, which is expected to take months — if not years — to complete.