Algeria claims ruthless rebel leader is dead after shoot-out

Algeria claims ruthless rebel leader is dead after shoot-out

By Robert Fisk – 10 February 2002,

Antar Zouabri is dead. Or so say the Algerian authorities. Along with two comrades, he was reported yesterday to have been killed in a gun battle two days ago with the armed forces in the town of Boufarik, south of Algiers.

Mr Zouabri was the head of the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, which had enlisted thousands of Algerians to fight in the Afghan guerrilla struggle against the Soviets. Since 1996 he led a ruthless insurgency against the Algerian military regime. The conflict was defined by throat-cutting, torture and endless « disappearances » at the hands of state security police.

Reports of Mr Zouabri’s death have, in the past, been exaggerated. His predecessor Djamel Zitouni, killed six years ago, was blamed by the French in 1994 for organising the hijacking of an Air France jet by a group that announced its intention of crashing the plane on Paris – a macabre foreshadowing of the 11 September crimes against humanity in America. They were foiled by French commandoes who stormed the aircraft when it refuelled at Marseilles.

At least a million Algerians were killed in the 1954-1962 war of independence against France, in which French troops as well as their Algerian antagonists were guilty of torture and massacres. The present Algerian war, in which as many as 200,000 civilians have been murdered, began shortly after the army cancelled the second round of democratic elections in 1992 – which the Islamic Salvation Front was certain to win.

After initially criticising the Algerians for their lack of democratic intent, the European Union – despite overwhelming evidence that the Algerian police and army were involved in killing and torture – gave its subdued support to the Algiers government, and the US Navy resumed exercises with the Algerian security forces.

The Russians, Algeria’s ally before the collapse of the Soviet Union, delivered 10 Sukhoi-24 bombers last November. Twelve more are to come, and will no doubt be used against any GIA bases in the Algerian mountains.

In the early 1990s, the GIA was blamed for a series of epic massacres around Algiers. Chopped-off heads, rapes, mass killings and torture were commonplace, although survivors and ex-army officers later gave convincing evidence that the security forces were also involved.

Ex-soldiers in the Algerian army, in exile in Europe, claimed they had seen their colleagues forced to pretend that they were GIA members and to kill villagers in the Blida « triangle of death » south of Algiers. Torture and extra-judicial executions in police stations drew the condemnation of Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

But Mr Zouabri’s men were also known for their ruthlessness and cruelty. Women were forced into « temporary marriages »; villages that co-operated with the government were destroyed and their inhabitants disembowelled.

Under an amnesty called by the current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 6,000 armed men have surrendered to the authorities, according to the government, but the killings have not ended. At least 33 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the past week, some of them at the fake checkpoints the GIA operates on the highways.

Four people were murdered on Thursday at Harbil, 50 miles south of Algiers. Two other civilians were killed and eight wounded last weekend by an armed band on the main road linking the capital to the south of the country.

Amnesty last week condemned what it called the « impunity » bestowed upon those responsible for abuses of human rights in Algeria.