U.S. to Sell Military Gear to Algeria to Help It Fight Militants

U.S. to Sell Military Gear to Algeria to Help It Fight Militants

By STEVEN R. WEISMAN, The New-York Times, December 10, 2002

WASHINGTON, Dec. 9 — The Bush administration will sell equipment to the military-backed government of Algeria to help combat Islamic militants, administration officials said today. The militants have engaged in a violent uprising since an Islamic political party was banned in the early 1990’s.

The officials said that no decisions had been made on how large the package of military equipment might be, or what would be sold, but that items were likely to include night-vision gear for use by individuals or on military vehicles.

An American official said the United States would proceed slowly on the military aid package, in part because of the criticism by human rights groups, which have accused Algeria of brutality on its crackdown over the past 10 years. More than 100,000 people have reportedly been killed in violence during the past decade; some put the number at 150,000.

There is also heightened sensitivity in the administration to being perceived as anti-Islamic at a time when there is talk of a war against Iraq and increased violence in the Middle East.

« Thus far, no lethal equipment has been authorized, but down the road we might consider it, » said an official. « We will consider requests if we believe they contribute to the counterterrorism effort. »

William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and northern African affairs, said in Algiers that the United States was drafting a proposal for Congress on increasing military aid.

« These steps aim at intensifying the security cooperation between the countries, » he said. « Washington has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism. »

The United States has had no aid program for Algeria since at least 1992, when the government canceled an election that was apparently won by the militant Islamic Salvation Front. That party was banned when the election was called off.

The government crackdown spiraled into a civil war between the Algerian military and the insurgents. Government forces moved in to control large areas of the country, and the guerrillas retaliated with bombings and other attacks.

In the last year and a half, American officials say the violence has subsided. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has won praise from the Bush administration for his economic reforms, and after the attacks of Sept. 2001 he was one of the first Muslim leaders to offer help to the United States in its campaign against terrorism.

« Sept. 11 has caused us to re-evaluate a lot of our security relations in the Middle East, » an American official said.

A United States official said today that there was no clear evidence that Al Qaeda had operated in Algeria. However, he said similar groups the United States wanted to pursue had found a home in Algeria.

Until now, the only program of military cooperation with Algeria has offered military training and education to officers. An American official said $121,000 was spent on the program in 2001, and another $200,000 would be spent this year. Next year the program’s cost is to grow to $550,000.

Officials said the program allowed Algerian officers to learn from the United States about how to avoid human rights abuses in their crackdown on militants at home.

« The cooperation has been excellent, » said an American official. « The Algerians have been helpful to us in general, and we want to be helpful to them. »

In fighting against the Islamic rebellion, Algeria has said that it would be able to use more modern equipment, like attack helicopters.