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Algeria Marks Two Years of Crisis, On Brink Of Civil War

January 12, 1994

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) _ Two years after the army aborted parliamentary elections to thwart the ballot-box success of Muslim fundamentalists, Algeria stands on the brink of civil war.

The capital is an armed camp gripped by fear. Police, soldiers and agents are common in squares and buses. Many of Algeria’s 70,000 foreigners have fled since fundamentalists began targeting expatriates in September, killing 24.

The economy is sinking, in need of foreign capital and expertise.

The government, apparently conscious of the untenable situation, showed signs Tuesday of edging toward a dialogue with its Islamic opponents.

The National Dialogue Commission, which is laying groundwork for a reconciliation conference that may never get off the ground, confirmed it had established contacts with the banned Islamic Salvation Front.

Reports have circulated in the press for two months that contacts were under way. Commission spokesman Abdelkader Bensalah confirmed this at a news conference but gave no details, citing the ″sensitive″ nature of the issue.

Bensalah also indicated he was told that freedom will come soon for Salvation Front supporters detained without trial for two years in desert camps. Some people under house arrest also will be freed.

Algeria desperately needs a dramatic move toward peace.

About 3,000 people - fundamentalists, security forces and bystanders - have been killed in the two-year insurgency by rebels who want to establish an Islamic state.

The latest to die included Mohammed Bellal, chief government official in the Tissemsilt region about 175 miles southwest of Algiers. Bellal and his armed escort, said by witnesses to include about 10 police officers and soldiers, were killed Tuesday by Islamic gunmen, state television said.

Also Tuesday, gunmen ambushed and killed three police officers in a suburb of Algiers, an Algerian newspaper said today. A teacher and student at a nearby school were wounded by stray bullets, the newspaper said.

The killings were not immediately confirmed by security sources, which often take several days to report attacks.

A five-man committee rules the country, installed by the army in a coup that ousted President Chadli Bendjedid on Jan. 11, 1992, after 12 years in office. The army then canceled Jan. 16 runoff parliamentary elections that fundamentalists were sure to win.

Bendjedid had ended three decades of single-party politics with a constitutional revision after bloody 1988 riots. He was considered soft on fundamentalists, and was reportedly ready to share power.

The ruling High State Committee is scheduled to step down Jan. 31.

A national conference to choose a new president is to be held Jan. 25-26, but it is unclear who will take part. National elections are not scheduled for another three years.

A main opposition party, the Front for Socialist Forces, said Monday it would not take part in the conference. The National Liberation Front, the party that ruled Algeria for 30 years, has not yet said whether it would attend.

″Those now in power will certainly resign,″ said Sid-Lakhdar Boumediene, an official with the socialist front. ″But they will reappear just as quickly through a solid constitutionalization of the coup d’etat.″

The remark echoed fears that the conference would be a meaningless forum to ensconce anew the old power structure in office, despite the demand by broad segments of the nation for a break with the past.

The Islamic Salvation Front, which trounced other parties in 1990 municipal elections, held a wide lead after the first-round parliamentary vote. The party was banned in March 1992, a month after a state of emergency was declared.

Officials have said law-abiding representatives of the party could take part in the conference, eliminating from eligibility most Salvation Front leaders who are jailed, in hiding or in exile.

In the meantime, the government lacks the political support or the will to restructure an inefficient state-controlled economy that mostly benefits the elite. Falling world oil prices have cut income from the petroleum industry, Algeria’s largest, while unemployment is 25 percent.

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