September 29, 2005

Algerians set to back Islamic rebel amnesty

By Paul de Bendern

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algerians were expected to approve a
partial amnesty for hundreds of Islamic militants in a
referendum on Thursday intended to bring an end to a decade of
brutal violence that has cost at least 150,000 lives.

The long conflict, one of the world's cruelest, isolated
Algeria from the rest of the world amid atrocities by rebels
and allegations of crimes by security forces.

Although some Algerians buried voting cards in the graves
of loved ones to protest against the amnesty, most said they
are ready to forgive. "We are fed up with the tears. It's time
to forget the past and build a future," said an Algiers voter,
a 37-year-old teacher who gave her name as Amina.

Opposition parties accuse President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of
using the referendum to strengthen his grip on the
oil-producing Arab state. Human rights groups say the amnesty
will sweep under the carpet abuses, including the fate of
thousands of missing persons and hinder trials.

The United States said that while it would have preferred a
more comprehensive public debate about accountability it would
respect the result of a referendum, which it called critical to
healing the wounds of the conflict.

The charter will pardon rebels in prison, on the run or
still fighting and drop other legal proceedings. Those involved
in massacres, such as one in 1997 in the Algiers suburb of
Bentalha where 400 civilians were killed, are excluded.

It also asks the people to forgive and turn the page on
what the president calls a "national tragedy." The charter bans
leading Islamists from participating in politics, a move
analysts say was to ensure the powerful army did not object.

Polling stations closed at 1900 GMT and initial results
were not expected until late in the night. By 1700 GMT,
participation stood at 65 percent of 18.3 million eligible
voters. The government forecast high participation, although
polling stations in several towns were half-empty.

In the capital Algiers, many of the voters were elderly men
and women. Unlike in previous polls the streets, decked with
large posters of Bouteflika and "yes," were crowded and shops
were open, suggesting many youths had ignored the vote.

The conflict began after the army canceled the second round
of Algeria's first multi-party legislative election, which the
Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was on course to win in 1992.

The violence was gruesome. Rebels were accused of slitting
the throats of their victims, carving out unborn children from
the wombs of their mothers, burning children in ovens and
slaughtering entire villages often at night.

Violence has fallen sharply in recent years, bringing back
foreign investment and improving ties with the West, although
hundreds of soldiers and civilians are still killed each year.


The authorities now estimate there are between 800 and
1,000 rebels, although only a few hundred are armed and
fighting security forces for a purist Islamic state. At its
height in the mid-1990s, up to 25,000 men were involved in the

Bouteflika says ending the violence will enable the
government to devote itself to social and economic problems.

However, many ordinary Algerians shrug off the importance
of the referendum, saying that improving their standard of
living was more important than pardoning remaining Islamists.

"Algeria's youth need jobs not a referendum," said Ahmed
Kennache, 27 and jobless, at a coffee house in central Algiers.
"I am also against the idea of forgiving killers."

In Blida, among the cities worst affected by the uprising,
dozens of people who lost family members buried their voting
cards in the graves of their loved ones as a protest.

"I won't vote. Instead, I decided to be at the cemetery to
remember my brother and my sister," resident Chefifa Khedar
told Reuters. "Burying our ballot cards is a way to show our

The charter rejects the notion that the security forces
were to blame for more than 6,000 disappearances during the
1990s. A government-appointed human rights body recently
concluded that most of them disappeared after they were
detained by police.

The government will instead propose financial compensation
for the families of the victims, an offer many of them reject.

It is the second time Bouteflika has asked the people in a
referendum to approve efforts to end the bloodshed. There are
no independent monitors of the ballot.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers and
Lamine Chikhi in Blida)