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Friday, July 23, 1999 Published at 18:48 GMT 19:48 UK

World: Middle East

Algeria's new era of reconciliation

After seven years of violent internal conflict, a new era appears to have begun

By BBC North Africa Correspondent Heba Saleh

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria has just completed three months in office, a period during which the political scene appears to have undergone considerable change.

After seven years of savage violence in which some 100,000 people have been killed, the dispute between the state and its opponents in the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) is formally over.

These days the message from Algiers is that the country is retrieving its self-confidence.

[ image: President Bouteflika is making efforts to appear democratic]
President Bouteflika is making efforts to appear democratic
The country has just hosted some 40 African leaders attending the annual summit of the Organisation of African Unity - an event presented by the official media as final proof that security has been restored.

As head of the OAU for the coming year, Mr Bouteflika will have the opportunity to enhance his country's international role.

Not only this, but he now appears to be presiding over an improvement in ties with Morocco and France, two strategic partners with whom Algeria has had very rocky relations in recent years.

In Algeria's official media it is now all talk of national reconciliation.

Democratic gesture

Earlier this month, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the armed wing of the Islamic Salvation Front, decided to give up the struggle for good and submit to the authority of the state.

[ image:  ]
This was followed by the Algerian government's civil concord bill which offers, on a case by case basis, an amnesty or reduced sentences to armed militants who give themselves up and who have not been implicated in killings or rape.

Despite having been overwhelmingly adopted by parliament, which is controlled by government parties backing Mr Bouteflika, the president is planning to put the civil concord law to a referendum later this summer.

The move is seen as an attempt by Mr Bouteflika to shore up his legitimacy and efface memories of the embarrassing circumstances of his election last April.

His six rivals withdrew on the eve of the election alleging that the army, which controls politics in Algeria, was planning to rig the poll in favour of Mr Bouteflika.

Healing wounds

The president has already released some 2,300 Islamists jailed on minor charges on the occasion of the country's national day earlier this month.

[ image: Algeria has suffered seven years of violence]
Algeria has suffered seven years of violence
Mr Bouteflika does seem to have a vision for Algeria based on healing the country's wounds as much as possible but without upsetting the military or compromising their control of politics.

The law on civic concord, human rights activists say, could offer a way back to many who have joined the armed groups to escape persecution from the state because they were Front members or had relatives in the armed groups.

But they point out that what is on offer is forgiveness by a strong state, not a process whereby the excesses and abuses committed by the armed groups and the security forces could be dealt with.

So far nothing has been said about the fate of at least 3,000 people who disappeared after arrest by the security forces, or the puzzling failure of the army to prevent the large-scale massacres in 1997 which in some cases happened very close to military installations.

Opposition suggestions ruled out

Those in the legal opposition in Algeria who have long called for negotiations between the state and its Islamist opponents remain ambivalent about the latest developments.

They say they welcome anything that leads to the reduction of violence, but they wanted the recent steps to have come within the context of a democratic evolution in which the army relinquished control of politics.

With Mr Bouteflika, however, this does not seem to be on offer. He has ruled out opposition suggestions of national conference to determine the country's future direction.

As for the Islamists they do not appear to have wrested any major political concessions. Mr Bouteflika has excluded legalising the Front and has said that it was not yet the moment to release its leaders.

He might consider, he says, allowing some Front members to set up a party, provided the leaders were not involved.

AIS truce

The image Mr Bouteflika appears to be intent on projecting is that of a strong state which can afford to be magnanimous rather than one of compromise.

Analysts say that Mr Bouteflika has been able to make his conciliatory gestures because his arrival on the scene marked the end of an internal conflict within the Algerian military establishment.

Apparently demoralised, and unable to achieve a military victory, the AIS has been observing a truce since 1997 which appears to have been the fruit of lengthy negotiations with the army.

Factional disputes pitting former President Liamine Zeroual against elements in the army leadership had held up any consolidation of the truce.

But when Mr Zeroual lost the power struggle last year, the winning side chose as successor Mr Bouteflika, a former foreign minister and skilful diplomat, who as he admits, is implementing the army's policies, and can be counted on to burnish the country's tarnished image.

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