Upsurge of violence as Algerians prepare for elections


By Rupen Savoulian

On October 23, Algerians will go to the polls in local elections. Thirty-eight political parties, two coalitions and several independents are fielding candidates.

The parties which will stand are the National Liberation Front (FLN), the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), the Algerian Party of Renewal (PRA), the National Democratic Rally (RND) and the Front of Socialist Forces (FFS).

The only major party absent is the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), banned since January 1992 after the government intervened in the late 1991 elections to cancel the second round, which the FIS was considered certain to win.

Since then, Algeria has been in the grip of an Islamic-led insurgency that has claimed 60,000 lives. Civilians have increasingly been targeted by both the state and Islamic extremists.

Increasing massacres of civilians are blamed on Islamic militants.

For example, 64 villagers in the town of Ben Ali, south Algeria, were massacred in a dawn raid in late August. Witnesses later reported that 30 women were among the victims and another four were abducted by the assailants. Whole families were slaughtered, their throats cut before being decapitated by the assailants.

In Sidi Rais, in the Sidi Moussa area of greater Algiers, 98 people were killed and 120 wounded. Many of the victims were women and children, and many of the victims had their throats cut.

This killing was also attributed to Islamic extremists. The attacks are generally blamed on the Armed Islamic Front (GIA), the most extreme of the Islamic groups fighting the government, but also on the underground elements of the FIS.

President Liamine Zeroual, a retired general, and Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia condemned the recent upsurge in violence against civilians and promised to stamp out "terrorism".

In an ominous development, Ouyahia announced in early September that measures have been decided to strengthen the state in dealing with "Islamic terrorists". The government has supervised the creation of "patriot brigades", armed gangs of vigilantes established ostensibly for the purpose of protecting civilians from attacks by Islamic militants.

The Chrea mountain region where the Ben Ali massacre occurred, 60 kilometres south of Algiers, has been the scene of many previous killings. The villages are located in areas that voted heavily in favour of FIS in the 1990 local elections and the first round of the 1991 general election.

The FFS raised questions about the lack of official information on the killings and asked why the authors or masterminds of such actions are not identified, captured and prosecuted.

The deteriorating security situation, says the FFS, is used to justify the regime's draconian clamping down on political activity and democratic rights. The expression of dissent is violently suppressed by the state security forces.

Despite the government's repeated claims that it is dealing with only "residual terrorism", the carnage against civilians has escalated.

The government conditionally released the head of the banned FIS, Abassi Madani, after he had served half of a 12-year sentence for "threatening state security". When he appealed to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, saying that he was ready to call a halt to the insurgency and open meaningful dialogue with the government, the Algerian administration rebuffed the offer.