US arms Algeria for fight against Islamic terror
Giles Tremlett Tuesday December 10, 2002 The Guardian
The US has agreed to sell arms to Algeria to help it put down the Islamic rebellion which has cost more than 100,000 lives in the past 10 years. In its wish to win the support of Muslim states for its war on terrorism, Washington appears to have replaced its previous reluctance to arm Algiers, because of its bad human rights record, with admiration.
Announcing the agreement as he ended a visit to Algiers yesterday, William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, said: « Washington has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism. »
He said: « We are putting the finishing touches to an agreement to sell Algeria military equipment to fight terrorism. »
He did not identify the type of weapons it was willing to sell, but added that the White House was drafting a proposal to Congress to increase military aid to Algeria.
« These steps aim at intensifying the security cooperation between the two countries. »
Algerian radical Islamists took up arms against the military establishment when the 1992 general election, which the Islamic Salvation Front was expected to win by a landslide, was abandoned and the generals took control.
More than 100,000 people have been killed since then, according to the government. Independent sources put the number at more than 150,000.
The army has been accused of carrying out some of the village massacres – the main characteristic of the conflict – which it has blamed on the Islamists. An exiled former paratroop officer, Habib Souaidia, is among those who say he has witnessed them.
He said he had been ordered to « exterminate anyone who supports the Islamists, not just terrorists ».
« The army was also killing indiscriminately to smear the Islamist terrorists. »
The generals say they simply began the fight against violent Islamist fundamentalism years before the US and other countries took it up.
The September 11 attacks by al-Qaida, they say, were proof that they were right all along.
Algeria has become a key partner in the fight against al-Qaida, because its insurgents are close allies of Osama bin Laden and have provided footsoldiers in Afghanistan and for planned terror attacks in the US and Europe.
More than a dozen members of the most active of these groups, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, have been arrested in Europe since September 11.
The Algerian army appears to have been winning its battle against the Salafists and their fundamentalist allies in the Armed Islamic Groups (GIA) in the past couple of years.
But the generals have long complained that the lack of such modern armaments as attack helicopters and infra-red night vision equipment has hampered them.
Last year the government was also confronted by members of the Berber minority, and 80 people were killed by the police and army during riots.
In recent months the European Union has ignored protests by Amnesty International and other human rights groups in its efforts to improve relations with Algeria.
Its external affairs commissioner, Chris Patten, and its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, both visited Algiers earlier this year.
An EU-Algeria association agreement was signed in April.