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Monday, July 5, 1999 Published at 20:59 GMT 21:59 UK

World: Middle East

Algeria frees first 30 militants

Relatives wait outside Serkadji prison in Algiers

The Algerian authorities have begun releasing Islamic militants from jail, a day after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika pardoned thousands of prisoners in a new bid to end the long-running civil conflict.

Jim Muir in Cairo: "Hardliners would like to see the Islamists eradicated"
About 30 prisoners left the Serkadji high-security jail in Algiers on Monday and were greeted by cheers and embraces from tearful family members.

The amnesty is intended for those convicted for lesser offences, such as providing shelter or funds to armed extremists. It was not announced how many people would benefit, but press estimates have ranged from 5,000 to 15,000.

President Bouteflika said those guilty of what he called blood crimes or rape would not be released.

The Algerian government also plans a wider amnesty to cover militants still at liberty.

"The state is strong now, and the strong are capable of forgiving," Bouteflika said.

Jim Muir reports from Cairo: "First tangible sign of hope"
Algerian state radio said: "This measure comes within the framework of restoring civil concord and aims to extend the scope for those benefitting from the legislative initiative the president has adopted.

" It reflects the president's pledge to the people that he will achieve peace," the radio said.

[ image: President Bouteflika: No murderers to be released]
President Bouteflika: No murderers to be released
The pardon is being seen as an attempt by President Bouteflika to reconcile his country after seven years of unrest in which an estimated 100,000 Algerians have been killed.

He recently called a referendum on a peace deal with the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in an effort to end the conflict.

Algeria was plunged into violence when the authorities cancelled a 1992 general election in which FIS had a commanding lead.

One FIS faction - the Coordinating Council of the Islamic Salvation Front - welcomed the amnesty as a "positive measure".

But in a statement from Paris, it said the president should take a series of further measures to bring about reconcilation.

These were

  • to lift a state of emergency
  • to free all jailed members of the Islamic Salvation Front
  • to allow Islamic militants the possibility of participating in politics
  • to sideline government officials involved in the cancellation of the 1992 elections.

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