Algeria's Long Night

Courtesy Reuters


Algeria's civil war showed signs in early summer of sputtering to an end. After nearly six years of conflict and some 60,000 deaths, Algerians were fed up, exhausted, in despair. Most appeared prepared to accept President Liamine Zeroual's political manipulations, which had seemingly squeezed his Islamist foes out of the system; in a 1995-97 series of elections that international observers called reasonably free, Zeroual had won a mandate that bolstered his claim to legitimacy. He also claimed a decisive military victory over the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the fiercest of the rebel factions, after his security forces asserted that they had killed Antar Zouabri, the group's chief, and his entourage. Indeed, a confident Zeroual went so far as to release Abassi Madani, the leader of the Islamic political opposition, who had been incarcerated since 1991.

But contrary to expectations, the summer was the bloodiest in six years of war, and by fall, with the government floundering, the prospects for peace had never looked dimmer. Madani, having declared that his Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had no intention of submitting to Zeroual's political engineering, was again under arrest. Reports leaked by the government of secret talks with the Islamists seemed an act of desperation; so was the fanfare accompanying a unilateral cease-fire declared by the Islamic Salvation Army, a marginal rebel force linked to Madani's political party. Meanwhile, GIA bands, acting independently of the Islamist political leadership, had struck panic throughout the country with their bold and brutal attacks. The new attacks, moreover, led many to speculate that government forces were not helpless but were actively contributing to the rising death toll.

For six years, observers had assumed that intermittent massacres in Algeria, mostly in rural areas, were the work of the GIA. In most cases they were. But repeatedly this summer, bands of killers slipped into villages, some on the edge of Algiers, the capital, and spent the night hours slashing the throats of women, children, and old men.

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