Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
10 - 16 June 1999
Issue No. 433
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Algeria's FIS lays down arms

Last week Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika announced in his first address to the nation that the door was open for militants to rejoin the mainstream. A few days later the Islamic Salvation Front's military wing, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), declared that it was giving up anti-government violence.

The AIS, which was once Algeria's main militant opposition group, also offered to fight alongside government forces against the extremist Armed Islamic Group (GIA) which is held responsible for some of the most brutal massacres against innocent civilians and army troops. "The AIS has decided to abandon completely its armed activities against the authorities," said the outlawed AIS in a statement signed by its chief Madani Mezrag. "We will keep our weapons but use them under the authority of the state," the statement added.

The AIS has been observing a unilateral cease-fire since October 1997, but the move was not recognised officially by the former Algerian President, Liamine Zeroual. The cease-fire has led to a significant improvement in the security situation in Algeria, but GIA militants continue to wage hit-and-run attacks against civilians and security forces. In the latest suspected GIA attack over the weekend, 19 civilians were massacred and four wounded at a village west of the capital Algiers. The GIA attack was seen as a response to the apparent rapprochement between President Bouteflika and the FIS.

Shortly after the AIS issued its latest statement, President Bouteflika's office said that the newly-elected president was planning to introduce legislation that would resolve the status of banned militants who renounced violence. The president is also expected to declare an amnesty for thousands of FIS members held in prison for years without charges or trial.

Algeria has been engulfed in violence since the army intervened in January 1992 to cancel the results of the first round of parliamentary elections which the FIS was poised to win. According to human rights organisations, more than 80,000 have been killed in the violence over the past seven years. While pro-Islamist figures welcomed the AIS statement, two secular Algerian parties reacted cautiously, saying any deal would have to be compatible with the country's elected institutions. The Socialist Forces Front (FFS) said in a statement that "any approach that ignores democracy would fail and aggravate the country's present unstable situation."

The Rally for Democracy and Culture (RCD), a hard-line anti-Islamist group, said the authorities must handle the radical Islamist issue as a "fundamentalist disease". A further statement from the RCD said that "any move to settle the conflict must be preceded by declarations of respect for the republic and the democratic character of the state."

President Bouteflika took office on 24 April after controversial elections in which he ran as a lone candidate. Six other candidates withdrew one day before the voting, alleging they had evidence that elections were going to be rigged in Bouteflika's favour.

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