President Nicolas Sarkozy of France began a three-day visit to Algeria

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France began a three-day visit to Algeria

on Monday, denouncing colonialism as “profoundly unjust” but stopping short of apologizing for the atrocities France was accused of committing there.

ALGIERS, Dec. 3 (Agence France-Presse) — The New York Times

“Yes, the colonial system was profoundly unjust, contrary to the three founding words of our Republic: freedom, equality, brotherhood,” Mr. Sarkozy said.

But he steered clear of bending to Algerian demands to say he was sorry for atrocities that French troops and settlers were accused of committing during the North African country’s bitter and bloody war of independence, from 1954 to 1962.

Mr. Sarkozy said “terrible crimes” were committed on both sides throughout the war with numerous victims, whom he said he wished to honor.

France ruled Algeria, the second-biggest country in Africa, from 1830 to 1962, turning the country into one of its empire’s proudest possessions and populating it with tens of thousands of settlers.

France and its former colony have maintained an uneasy relationship since 1962, and now, 45 years later, plans for a friendship treaty remain on hold over France’s refusal to apologize for past events.

“The moment has come to entrust Algerian and French historians with the task of writing this page of tormented history together,” Mr. Sarkozy said.

On Monday, the newspaper Al Khabar printed a front-page demand for an apology, including for the nuclear tests carried out in the Algerian Sahara in 1960 and 1966.

More than 160 Algerian and Moroccan politicians, lawyers and rights advocates also published a joint appeal for France to acknowledge the “trauma caused by the colonization of Algeria,” to heal ties between the nations.

“Without denying the complexity of historical events, it was France that invaded Algeria in 1830, which occupied and dominated it, and not the reverse,” they wrote.

But for Mr. Sarkozy the main focus of the visit was business and to drum up support for his idea of a Mediterranean Union. He said Sunday that Algeria would be an “essential partner” in such a union.

The French leader traveled with about 100 businessmen and seven cabinet ministers. He is expected to sign contracts worth up to $7.3 billion during his trip.

French officials said Mr. Sarkozy may also sign a nuclear cooperation agreement, following a similar accord struck with Morocco last month, focused on training and nuclear safety.

The period leading to Mr. Sarkozy’s visit was clouded by remarks made by an Algerian minister who charged that the president — whose mother is half-Jewish — owed his election in May to a “Jewish lobby.”

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika firmly disowned the comments by the minister, Muhammad-Cherif Abbas.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, appealed to Mr. Sarkozy to call for the Algerian government to shed light on the fate of the thousands of people who “disappeared” during the country’s civil war in the 1990s.

Algeria said in 2005 that “agents of the state” had been responsible for the disappearance of 6,146 people from 1992 to 1998, but Algerian rights groups put the number as much as three times higher.