Algeria's Civil War


January 20, 1998

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript

Algeria's six year civil war between Islamic militants and the secular government has produced some of the most ghastly atrocities in recent memory. After a background report, an expert examines the causes of this bloody conflict that has claimed 75,000 lives.

A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
October 21, 1997
An Independent Television News report on the massacres in Algeria.

October 1, 1997
A look at the causes and possible solutions to violence in Algeria.

January 22, 1997
The conflict between the Muslim fundamentalists and the Algerian government.

Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Africa.

Algerian history, news and information from ArabNet.
Amnesty International's country reports.
Algeria's Civil War KWAME HOLMAN: In every year of the 6-year civil war in Algeria attacks on civilians escalated during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. This year was no exception. At least 1100 people have been killed since Ramadan began December 30th. Over the last three weeks homes were ransacked--men, women and children were murdered. Many had their throats cut or were burned. Massacres have been part of daily life in Algeria since the battle between Islamic militants and Algeria's secular government, began in 1992. An estimated 75,000 people have lost their lives.

Cancelled elections sparked violence.

Algeria's Civil War The fight for political control of what once was one of North Africa's most prosperous countries started after Algeria's first free elections. The country's leading Muslim party, the Islamic Salvation Party, was on its way to victory when the military-backed government voided the election results and installed officials who prevented the religious party from taking power. Islamic militants have been fighting the government ever since.

Much of the violence reportedly has been initiated by a shadowy force called the Armed Islamic Group, one of several armed guerrilla groups operating in Algeria. The violence does not appear to be one sided. Reportedly, government-sponsored militias also have retaliated, using air raids and torture as part of their campaign to crush the insurgency. Algeria's Civil War And recently, there have been allegations in Algeria and from abroad that the government has not done enough to protect civilians, allowing violence to occur uncontested near military bases.

The amount of bloodshed spurred the European Union to ask for talks with the Algerian government. Representatives of the EU were there today. They urged the government to allow United Nations observers to investigate the ongoing violence. The delegation left late today without any official reply. In the past, the Algerian government had rejected any form of international help. But today's discussions were marred by still more killings. Two bombs set off in Algiers took at least six lives and injured fifty. There were no claims of responsibility.

Algeria's Civil War JIM LEHRER: Phil Ponce takes the story from there.

PHIL PONCE: For more we go to Mary-Jane Deeb, editor of the Middle East Journal. She was in Algeria this past June observing Algeria's parliamentary elections for the United Nations. Welcome, Ms. Deeb.

How much clarity is there now regarding who's responsible for the killings?

An opposition with no central control.

Algeria's Civil War MARY-JANE DEEB, The Middle East Journal: Well, there is more clarity than there was a while ago. We seem to see the Islamic group--the AIG--doing more of the killings. This is a separate group from the major Islamic opposition, the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Front. And this AIG is fragmented. It's fragmented into smaller factions with leaders of its own. There is no center of control. There is no central distribution of reinforcement or of services, or of anything of the sort, the way we saw with the Islamic Salvation Front. There are also militias, private militias, that are involved in the killings. There are individuals who are fighting over land, land grabs. So there's a whole set of groups that are involved. It's not one particular group that is responsible for the massacres.

PHIL PONCE: But you mentioned two Islamic groups. One, therefore, is more moderate and one is more militant, and it's the more militant of the two that's suspected as having some hand in the killing. What is their motivation? What do they want?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Well, in the beginning they really wanted to overthrow the government and to turn Algeria into an Islamic republic. Today, what we're seeing is qualitatively different. There is not even a claim to being Islamic. There seems to be random violence, thievery, banditry, revenge, and destructive of villages. It's no longer even in the name of Islam that those groups are doing that, although they may claim that it is, although there are cries of Allah Akbar that are sounded, but basically I think it has come down to the level of highway banditry.

Algeria's Civil War PHIL PONCE: And when you say Allah Akbar, the phrase means--

MARY-JANE DEEB: Well, God is great.

Can the Algerian government stop the attacks?

PHIL PONCE: Why hasn't the government been able to stop these killings?

MARY-JANE DEEB: The government has done a great deal more than we think. For instance, all the major cities have been protected during Ramadan. Algiers, nothing has happened in Algiers, nothing has happened in Constantine, or Annaba, or Oran. All these urban centers where the population is concentrated are protected. What we're seeing now are isolated villages where it is very difficult to assume the protection of all the individuals there. So there has been an increased insecurity, but that is not possible all over the country. The country is quite large.

PHIL PONCE: Because some of the attacks have taken place not very far from Algiers.

MARY-JANE DEEB: That's correct. That's correct.

Is the govnernment itself responsible the bloodshed?

Algeria's Civil War PHIL PONCE: How about reports--some of the government's critics even go so far as to say that the government itself has had a hand in some of these abuses. Is there any credibility to that?

MARY-JANE DEEB: The issue is built up in conjunction with the arming of private militias. There have been civilians that have been armed, given arms to protect villagers. And those militias have, in turn, committed some of the massacres, themselves, because they're civilians, they're not trained, there's no supervision, they're not accountable to anyone, and they have taken revenge on villages who had some role in destroying their own villages or in robbing them, or whatever. So people have taken the law into their own hand, and that's very dangerous. But they're linked to the government because the government has given them arms.

An army of 18-, 19-year-old conscripts.

PHIL PONCE: The government has strongly denied any involvement and today the ambassador from--the envoy from Britain said that as far as the European commission is concerned, the European community is concerned, that there was no--that there was no evidence of government involvement, and yet there have been reports that some of the massacres have happened very close to army installations.

Algeria's Civil War MARY-JANE DEEB: That's true. And one of the explanations that have been given have been that those army barracks were manned by very young men who are 18, 19 years old, conscripts, who really do not have the training to go and deal with the type of attacks that have occurred. They're scared because their families belong to those villages and those areas; they're afraid of retaliation. They are not prepared to that sort of--for that sort of warfare. And so there's been a great deal of reluctance, in fact, for those young men to be involved.

PHIL PONCE: And there's also been a great deal of reluctance on the part of government to allow any investigation from the outside. Why has the Algerian government been so reluctant to allow people from the international community to come in to try and gather some information?

MARY-JANE DEEB: I think that basically it's a matter of national pride. The reason is that Algeria was occupied for 132 years, as you know, by France. It's very sensitive to external interference in its own affairs. It feels that it should be responsible for what occurs inside, and so it is wary and cautious about Western interference in Algerian affairs.

Can the European Union start a dialogue?

Algeria's Civil War PHIL PONCE: So it was a pretty big deal when the Algerian government allowed this delegation from the European community to visit?

MARY-JANE DEEB: I think it's very significant. And it is significant because it's the start of a dialogue between the Europeans and the Algerians, a dialogue that has covered, as we've seen a great many issues, including security issues, human rights, freedom of the press, terrorism, and a number of other issues. And I think that is important. It is important to have a dialogue, and when Algerians open up, they see that the rest of the world does care what happens to Algerians. And they're not there in order to interfere. They're there in order to help.

PHIL PONCE: And what is it that the European community would like to see Algeria do?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Well, of course, everyone would like to see the government take more care of the villages and prevent the violence. I think it is doing a great deal, perhaps not enough, but certainly it is doing a great deal. The Algerians would like to see the Europeans support them more, for instance. They would like the Europeans to clamp down a bit on some of the Islamic networks in Great Britain, for instance, or in France, or in Belgium. So there is a discussion there. There is Algerians asking Europeans to do something about Islamist opposition groups in their own countries, and the Europeans asking the Algerians to do a little bit more to protect their inhabitants.

Should Europe crack down on terrorist groups?

PHIL PONCE: Does the Algerian government have a point, that the Europeans are not doing enough to clamp down on suspected terrorist groups that are operating out of Europe and affecting Algeria perhaps?

Algeria's Civil War MARY-JANE DEEB: Well, they certainly have a point. A number of leaders of some of those groups are in Great Britain and are in France. They have sought safe haven there. And they have operated certain networks which, among others, have led to some of the terrorist activities in Paris a couple of years ago.

PHIL PONCE: Do you think that it is going to take outside pressure for the killings to stop?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Perhaps, but I think it is an internal problem. And the outside could help in a number of ways. And some of the ways, for instance, would include more dialogue, more exchange of information, more transparency, if you want, through the press, and then something more significant, which is looking at Algeria as a country in which one can invest, one can do business, one can create jobs. It is important that Algeria develops economically and creates jobs for all those young people who very often are then taken into the militias and are involved in crimes. If there were more economic opportunities, then perhaps the violence would be reduced in Algeria.

PHIL PONCE: Mary-Jane Deeb, thank you very much.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Thank you.

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