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Monday, July 5, 1999 Published at 13:59 GMT 14:59 UK

World: Africa

Analysis: Algerian president's peace plan

The president campaigning: Now he must deliver on his promises

By BBC Middle East and Islamic affairs analyst Roger Hardy

When Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected president of Algeria in April, it was after a campaign in which he had pledged to restore national harmony and end the long years of bloodshed.

The voters could be forgiven for reacting with a certain cynicism. They had heard such promises before. Moreover, the election was tarnished by the fact that six of President Bouteflika's rivals all withdrew, complaining that the contest had been rigged in his favour.

But on Monday President Bouteflika showed that he could move quickly, by beginning the release of thousands of Muslim militants from prison, the anniversary of Algeria's independence from France in 1962.

It is only a partial amnesty, expected to cover 5,000 of an estimated 20,000 militants currently in jail. Those guilty of murder or rape are excluded. And human rights groups say the president should go much further and reform the whole judicial system, if he wants his initiative to have real credibility.

Seven-year crisis

Nevertheless this is a significant development in Algeria's long and painful political crisis.

[ image: The amnesty marks independence from France in 1962, after a bitter conflict]
The amnesty marks independence from France in 1962, after a bitter conflict
That crisis dates back to 1992, when a military-backed ruling council took power and cancelled elections which the main Islamic opposition party - the FIS - was on the verge of winning. This precipitated seven years of often brutal violence which - by President's Bouteflika's own stark admission - has claimed 100,000 lives.

Several prominent leaders of the FIS have already welcomed the president's peace initiative, which he's proposing to put to a popular referendum after endorsement by parliament.

Both camps split

His difficulty, however, is the one that has confronted every Algerian leader in recent years - that the two main protagonists in the Algerian drama, the armed forces and the Islamists, are both badly split.

The more pragmatic elements in the army are likely to endorse Mr Bouteflika's peace initiative.

But he will have to reassure hard-line generals who are suspicious of any overture to the Islamists. The most extreme Islamist group - the shadowy GIA - is meanwhile likely to see the amnesty as a trap and denounce those who go along with it.

It is far too soon to say that Algeria's long nightmare is over. Nevertheless Mr Bouteflika has moved skilfully in his first few weeks in power, in a carefully calculated bid to build up a coalition of support behind him - and marginalise those who remain committed to fuelling the violence.

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