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Algerian insurgents’ call unprecedented truce, but will carnage end?

September 24, 1997

PARIS (AP) _ The Islamic militant group that launched Algeria’s bloody insurgency five years ago has called for an unprecedented truce, the fruit of negotiations with the military-backed regime. Still, the move is not likely to end the slaughter of civilians by the group’s more radical rival.

The Islamic Salvation Army said an Oct. 1 cease-fire would ``unmask the enemy hiding behind the abominable massacres,″ Algerian newspapers reported Wednesday. It said Algeria’s recent carnage was the work of ``perverse extremists″ of the rival Armed Islamic Group.

Well over 60,000 people have died since the start of the insurgency, triggered by the army’s cancellation of a second round of legislative elections in January 1992, after an overwhelming first-round victory by the Islamic Salvation Front.

``Algerian Muslim People ... the national emir of the Islamic Salvation Army orders all chiefs of companies fighting under his command to stop operations as of ... Oct. 1, 1997, and calls all other groups close to the interests of the religion and the nation to rally to this call,″ the statement said.

The statement was signed by national chief Madani Mezerag and dated Tuesday. It acknowledged reports of negotiations with authorities and was published a day after armed men killed some 200 people in Baraki, on the outskirts of the capital, Algiers.

``The situation is dangerous and the plot enormous,″ said the communique, laced with Koranic verses.

The Islamic Salvation Army, now the Salvation Front’s military wing, was the first organized group to be formed out of a chaotic retinue of militants trying to win back ``stolen votes.″

Its forces number several thousand and are said to be poorly equipped, operating mainly in western and eastern Algeria. It has no base in the critical Algiers region, a stronghold of the Armed Islamic Group and theater of the massacres.

But there appeared little likelihood that the cease-fire call could bring an immediate end to the violence.

More than 500 people have been reported killed in grisly late-night massacres since August, most of them blamed on the rival Armed Islamic Group.

The more militant group, an amorphous organization that includes wayward youths and bandits, specializes in random terror attacks on civilians, car bombings and massacres. It reportedly has been infiltrated by agents of the military police.

In its statement, the Islamic Salvation Army blamed the recent upsurge in violence, which has spiraled since an Aug. 29 attack that killed up to 300 people, on its new ``detente″ with authorities.

The group’s negotiations with the government succeeded in gaining the July release from prison of Salvation Front President Abassi Madani and No. 3 leader Abdelkader Hachani.

President Liamine Zeroual, a retired general, was said to have taken the initiative in reestablishing talks with the Salvation Front.

Reports of negotiations were followed by rumors of a crisis within the military establishment that is the real source of power in Algeria. The army has long been split between those who want to decimate insurgents with firepower and those who support a political solution.

The detente between a faction of the power structure and the Islamic Salvation Army ``has pushed the enemies of yesterday and today to manipulate their peons ... in order to rekindle the flame of discord,″ the communique said.

Algerian journalist Salim Ghezali, noted as an astute observer of the conflict, fears the truce call could push violence up another notch.

``Each time a clan wants to negotiate with one group of fundamentalists, the others react with even more violence,″ she said in a telephone interview.

``I don’t think a truce can lead to anything today,″ she said. ``There are far too many armed groups. ... There are splits within the state. If generals can’t agree on a strategy, I don’t think an accord between one clan in power and one armed group can be of consequence.″

The cease-fire call had the clear backing of authorities. Its publication on the front page of the pro-government daily El Moudjahid and excerpts run on state television broke with a long-standing ban on publishing anything from insurgents.

The truce ``will certainly be observed″ by all companies of the Islamic Salvation Army as well as autonomous groups, said Salvation Front spokesman Abdelkrim Ould Adda, who lives in exile in Europe.

But the independent newspaper El Watan was not optimistic.

To get results, ``Mezerag must be able to control all the groups working under his authority,″ it wrote. ``Something which is not evident (he can do).″

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