July 30, 2005

Influential Algerian Islamist leader questioned

ALGIERS (Reuters) - A powerful former leader of Algeria's
banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party was questioned by a
prosecutor on Saturday for his public praise of Iraq's
insurgency and the kidnapping of two Algerian diplomats.

Ali Belhadj was detained by police in the capital Algiers
on Wednesday shortly after he told Al Jazeera television in a
telephone interview that he "related" to the mujahideen
fighting U.S.-led forces and their allies.

Two Algerian diplomats were killed by al Qaeda in Iraq
shortly after Belhadj's comments.

Security experts said Belhadj's comments could be
punishable under the anti-terrorism law and for breaking terms
linked to his release from prison in 2003. A prosecutor could
call on the court to hold him for trial, place him under house
arrest or free him.

It is the first significant crackdown by the authorities on
former leaders of the hardline Islamic movement since Belhadj
was released from a military prison in 2003 after serving a
12-year-term along with FIS leader Abassi Madani.

Both were jailed for threatening national security. They
were banned from political activity and from making public

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Belhadj was among the
most influential radical leaders and helped the FIS rise to win
Algeria's first multiparty national elections in Dec. 1991. The
army canceled the second round of the vote, sparking an
insurgency that has left an estimated 150,000-200,000 people
dead. Violence has sharply fallen in recent years.

The authorities have kept a close eye on Belhadj on fears
he could rekindle hardline views among disenchanted and
unemployed youth. At the FIS' peak Belhadj could attract
hundreds of thousands of people from across the country to his

Newspapers again on Saturday lashed out against him.

"Ali Belhadj is a man who should have kept silent, made
himself forgotten, disappeared after he did so much harm to
this country," influential newspaper El Watan said in an

"He is an accomplice in the assassination of two Algerian
citizens and for that he should be held accountable," it said.

Former FIS members gathered outside court said Belhadj was
about to urge al Qaeda to free the envoys but was abruptly cut
off by Al Jazeera.