Algerian junta caught in web of contradictions
By Sid Ahmed, Crescent, September 16-30, 1997
The footprints of the Algerian junta are visible all over the gruesome massacres that have been perpetrated in different parts of Algeria over the last two weeks. The latest outrage on September 5 claimed 87 lives in Beni Mousses, a poor suburb of Algiers, the country’s capital; 72 others were killed elsewhere bring ing the total to 159 for the night.
The Beni Mousses killings, how ever, pale into insignificance in comparison with the August 29 slaughter near Rais, 40 kms south of Algiers, when an estimated 300 people were hacked to death. That was the worst massacre in the brutal civil war. Together with 40 others ki1led in Maalba, the total for that night was 340.
Even by Algeria’s gory standards, which has claimed more than 150,000 lives since 1992, this is mindboggling. Even more horrifying is the fact that soldiers who were within hearing distance in military baracks in Beni Mousses did not respond to the villagers’ cries for help who banged their pots and pans in a desperate attempt to draw attention.
While the western media typically blamed ‘Islamic militants’ for these outrages (see, for instance, the Associated Press story, September 6), they failed to mention why the regime’s soldiers refused to stop the carnage. Equally revealing is the fact that many of the attackers routinely drive into towns and villages controlled by the military, carry out gruesome acts and then disappear without being challenged. In Ben Mousses, the attackers were even howling like jackals, according to survivors.
The soldiers entered the village the next day when the attackers had already fled. This is typical of the government’s response. As the newsletter, El-Ribal, which is close to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), pointed out on September 3, the massacre near Rais, Masted four hours, only minutes away from the large army barracks at Larbaa and Sidi Moussa, but no troops stationed there intervened.’ It is ‘impossible to commit such outrage in a heavily militarized region like Algiers without the army helping or tacitly agreeing when it has monitored the region for years,’ the newsletter said.
El Ribat drew attention to armed groups control led by the regime, such as militias or death squads that were set up in early 1994. These groups are’ free to rage as they wish throughout the country,’ it said. Most of their activities are carried out in areas under the military’s direct control which provides them logistical support and protection.
The Rais massacre is reported to have been perpetrated by men who came in trucks. They were armed with axes and knives and launched their macabre ritual without the military, within hearing distance, doing anything about it. The trucks had driven past military check points into the besieged village.
If the regime was hoping to pin the blame or. the Islamic movement, it seems to have backfired this time. The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, said in Venice, Italy, on August 30 that the Algerian people cannot be abandoned to their fate. This appeared to have touched a raw nerve in Algiers which instructed its UN ambassador to make strong representation to the UN chief.
The junta also put Shaikh Abassi Madani, leader of the FIS, under house arrest on August 31. He was released only six weeks earlier (July 15) after serving five years of a 12-year sentence for allegedly attempting to ‘undermine the State.’
In a letter to the UN chief on August 30, Shaikh Madani had said that he was prepared to call for a truce of all armed resistance provided the regime agreed to the setting up of an international commission to investigate these crimes and enter into a serious dialogue with the Islamic Movement. The FIS’s overseas executive, in a statement issued on September 1, also condemned the massacres of Algerian civilians as ‘abominable.’
A day earlier, even the director general of UNESCO, Federico Mayor. was moved to issue a call fora worldwide condemnation of the violence-in Algeria, describing it ‘unqualified and unjustified barbarism.’ The regime, however, appeared in no mood to listen. The same day (August 31), the Algerian paper, La Tribune, claimed that Mustapha Akkal, commander of the western region of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), who has a bounty of three million Algerian dinars (US$49,000) on his head, was killed with three of his men in an ambush between Tafessour and Ouala.
Media reports, planted by the regime, of deaths of commanders in various encounters have proved false in the past. In July, for instance, the media reported that Antar Zouabri, chief of the G1A, had been killed in an army offensive to the west of Algeria. This turned out to be false as well.
One must question the motives and objectives behind the latest series of killings. There is no benefit whatsoever to the Islamic Movement in such acts since these antagonise the very people on whose support they rely. On the other hand, the regime has much to gain by blaming such henious crimes on the Islamic Movement, hoping to undermine its support among the people. The Rais and Beni Mousses killings show that the junta may be losing the propaganda war as well. Its tactics appear to have backfired as its methods have become more brutal and its explanations caught in a web of contradictions.