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Last Updated: Monday, 26 April, 2004, 15:26 GMT 16:26 UK
Algeria winning from the war on terror

By Tamsin Smith
BBC, Algeria

"Don't you think it looks just like Marseille?" said our driver proudly as we drove into the centre of Algiers.

Algiers is looking more and more towards Europe
He made a sort of circular gesture which encompassed the tall white townhouses, with their royal blue shutters, and the fancy wrought iron streetlights.

Satellite dishes cling to the outside of every building, like thousands of eyes all turned in the same direction towards French satellite TV.

The Algerians fought a bloody war to gain independence from the French in 1962.

But today their attraction to the West, especially in the capital, is striking.

'Algerian terrorists'

A little further down the road we passed a cafe which had been rather inventively mocked up as a McDonalds.

A large M scrawled on a table top hangs above the door.

If people here feel closer to the West its also because they feel distant from their Arab neighbours.

"Put it this way, if there's a football match between any European team and an Arab team.. we'll shout for the Europeans until we go hoarse," says one young man, using the hand not holding a dripping kebab to point at his Juventus shirt

"The other Arabs treat us all as terrorists. The Europeans, Americans and Canadians treat us much better," explains his friend wearing an England shirt.

Mercenary existence

Of course the West is interested in Algeria too, not quite for the same reasons.

"Algeria is an important ally for us in the war on terror. They have provided really valuable cooperation since 11 September. There are Algerian groups listed on the UN Security Council list, meaning they have links to the Taleban and al-Qaeda," explains the American ambassador in Algiers, Richard Erdman

Abdelaziz Bouteflika
I am so happy our president is back in power, he is wonderful
Old Algerian woman
But experts estimate that Islamic terrorists left in Algeria now only total a couple of hundred.

These groups are said to live a mercenary existence in the countryside and mountains.

Western praise

Some 12 years ago, when bloody violence between Islamic extremists and the security services claimed 150 000 lives, the presence of the West was less obvious.

I went to meet Khaled Nazzar, a former army general and defence minister, and reputedly one of those who ordered the army to cancel the 1992 elections that Islamist extremists looked set to win.

I asked him what he thought about western praise for Algeria's support in the war on terror.

"What happened in Madrid and what happened on the 11 September is what happened in Algeria. Today the West has woken up, but why didn't it defend the Algerians .. why did it close its eyes ?.. we defended Algeria by ourselves," he said angrily.

Economic interests

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who has just been re-elected by what can only be described as a landslide, has done rather well out of the war on terror.

But some human rights lawyers claim the zealous pursuit of terrorists to please the West has meant a less than scrupulous approach from security forces.

Western countries have economic interests in Algeria. There is lots of oil and gas here
Mostefa Bouchachi, Human rights lawyer

"People are tortured systematically here. 80% of my clients tell me when I visit them in prison that they have been tortured by police," human rights lawyer Mostefa Bouchachi points to a stack of brown files on his desk.

Mr Bouchachi says people arrested recently, many on suspicion of being terrorists, and even those arrested for theft are still tortured.

Other human rights issues like the question of what happened to 7,000 people who disappeared in the 1990s allegedly at the hands of the security forces are still outstanding.

Mr Bouchachi doesn't expect the West to press for answers.

"The western countries have economic interests in Algeria. There is lots of oil and gas here so I don't expect they will push the government to change tactics used by the security forces," he explains.

Massive wealth

Stand on the dockside overlooking the port of Algiers and you see a crucial reason that the West wants stability in Algeria.

A long line of rusty oil tankers crawls out of the port, destined for Spain and France

"Not many people know this, but oil from Algeria heats all the homes in New England too," says the US ambassador.

This is perhaps not so amazing for the Algerian people. They may be sitting on a wealth of oil, but many seemed more bothered about a constant supply of clean water and lack of jobs.

"Let's not forget that Algeria is a very rich country. It exports billions of dollars a year in oil," says Professor Mohamed Khodja from the University of Algeria.

Missing Algerians
Algerian forces are accused of the systematic torture of suspects
Prof Khodja thinks western influence can bring some stability in Algeria but it won't prompt the democratic change needed to transfer Algeria's massive wealth from the state to the people.

"The problem is how to use this money rationally, we don't have the mechanisms in place yet to do this and this has to come from the people," he says.

Prof Khodja says Algerians can't believe that with all these riches, they still are poor and they can't build houses, or start businesses.

Good image

''I am so happy our president is back in power, he is wonderful," an old lady at a bus stop beamed as she took a photo of him out of her shopping bag and showed it to me.

"He has beaten the terrorists so we all feel safe now," she said.

I asked her if she thought he would now improve quality of life, bring more jobs and improve basic infrastructure.

She shook her head. "No, but he's really improved Algeria's image in the world,"

For now, it seems this is more important.


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