September 30, 2005

Algerians vote massively to bury brutal war

By Hamid Ould Ahmed

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algerians voted overwhelmingly to turn
the page on a decade of civil war that has cost more than
150,000 lives by offering a partial amnesty to hundreds of
die-hard Islamic militants, results showed on Friday.

The conflict, which pitted neighbor against neighbor,
isolated the oil-producing Arab state from the rest of the
world amid atrocities by rebels and allegations of crimes by
security forces.

Interior Minister Noureddine Zerhouni said 97.4 percent
backed a referendum on Thursday on a "charter for peace and
national reconciliation," which saw a participation level of 80
percent of 18.3 million eligible voters.

"The time has come to turn the page on hate and violence.
As Muslims we have to unify and believe that the future is
going to be better than the past," 45-year-old shop owner
Mohamed Lamri told Reuters on the outskirts of the capital

Human rights groups and some of families of the victims of
the conflict fear the security forces, accused of being behind
thousands of disappearances, will now never stand trial.

The controversial charter praised the powerful armed forces
and state agents in their fight against rebels bent on turning
the North African country into a purist Islamic state. It also
blamed the militants for what it called a "national tragedy."

Some small opposition parties accuse President Abdelaziz
Bouteflika of using the referendum to strengthen his grip on
the oil-producing Arab state.

"It's a plebiscite organized by the regime to realize the
ambitions of Bouteflika and extend his power," Hocine Ait
Ahmed, exiled leader of the opposition Socialist Forces Front,
told Swiss daily Tribune de Geneve. "The results will be

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.

Voting was marred by violence in several provinces in the
east of the country, particularly in the restive Berber region
of Kabylie where opposition parties had called for a boycott.
Participation in the main Berber city of Tizi Ouzou was a mere
11.5 percent.

In provinces hardest hit by 13 years of civil war,
participation exceeded 90 percent.

"The vote was done in total transparency," Zerhouni told a
news conference.

However, there were no independent organizations monitoring
the nationwide ballot and analysts questioned the stated high
level of participation given that many polling stations were


Most Algerians said they are ready to forgive, although the
cruelty witnessed is still poorly understood. Rebels were
accused of going from village to village at night, beheading
entire families.

Rights groups and some small opposition parties said
Algeria should not put the bloody past behind but seek
accountability and truth or else the nightmare will not fade

Souad Zafar, who survived a massacre in Bentalha on the
outskirts of Algiers in 1997, said she backed the referendum
for her son to have a future but would not forgive the rebels
who witnessed the rebels kill seven members of her family.

The charter will pardon hundreds of rebels in prison, on
the run or still fighting and drop other legal proceedings.
Those involved in massacres are excluded, but critics say a
patchy judicial system will mean some culprits will be spared

Around 1,000 militants, most belonging to the Salafist
Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), remain active and carry
out sporadic deadly attacks, mostly against soldiers.

Leading former militant chief Madani Mezrag, who was
amnestied in the late 1990s, told Reuters 80 percent of rebels
would come down from the mountains, but that the struggle for a
purist Islamic state would continue through democratic means.

The charter bans top Islamists from politics, a move
analysts say was to ensure the powerful army did not object.

Pressure will be on Bouteflika to meet his promise of peace
and prosperity in Africa's second-largest country suffering
from high unemployment, widespread social discontent, housing
shortages, and a lack of adequate infrastructure.

"The referendum will not end the Algerian crisis. Our
country has a lot of money but the government is not doing
enough to solve the social and economic problems, which are
still a source of unrest," said Yousef Bakir, a state employee.

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.

(Additional reporting by Lamine Chikhi in Algiers)