Algerians Approve Rebel Amnesty Plan

Algerians Approve Rebel Amnesty Plan

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 17, 1999; Page A17

ALGIERS, Sept. 16 –– Wearied by seven years of bloodletting, Algerians overwhelmingly endorsed an amnesty plan for Islamic rebels today in a referendum designed to strengthen President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in his campaign to end a vicious underground war that has cost an estimated 100,000 lives.

Although the pace of killing has diminished recently, today's vote was only one step toward ending the conflict. But with Bouteflika stumping under rainbow-colored banners and posters of doves and olive branches plastered around the capital, the referendum has raised hopes that Algeria may finally be able to stop the relentless battle between its ruthless Islamic zealots on one side and its equally aggressive security forces on the other.

"I solemnly pledge that I will change things in Algeria from top to bottom," Bouteflika told reporters after he cast his ballot near the presidential palace.

With that as the goal, the voting took on a peculiarly patriotic hue, more an expression of desire for reconciliation and a fresh start than a judgment about policy. Since a "yes" majority was assured, turnout became the only issue. Interior Ministry officials said 85 percent of the 17 million eligible voters participated with 98 percent voting yes, giving Bouteflika the mandate he said he needs to navigate between the Islamic rebellion and hard-line army officers who see "eradication" as the only response.

"I'm doing my duty for my country," said voter Kader Messauda as she left a polling place in Algiers, the seaside capital. "All we need is peace."

But even as the killing has slowed in the cities and receded into the countryside, even as Algerians have begun vesting their hopes in Bouteflika's rhetoric of reconciliation and truth-telling, people here say they also know that the process of mending their nation has just begun.

"There is blood between the Algerians," said Aissa Benlakhdar, president of the Irchad Islah Association, an Islamic cultural and welfare group that supported today's referendum. "This is not a vote that everything is okay. It is a starting point. For this we can overcome the enmity. We are voting, all together, to work tomorrow, all together."

Voters were asked a single question: "Do you agree with the president's approach to restore peace and civilian concord?"

Underlying that question was Bouteflika's amnesty plan--Islamic rebels have been invited to turn themselves in on a pledge that, if they were not directly involved in killings, they will escape punishment--and his promise to breathe new life into Algeria's wheezing petroleum-based economy and its often sclerotic and corrupt administration.

There has been a steady trickle of good news here since Bouteflika's election April 15 and the amnesty plan approved by Parliament three months later. Members of groups such as the Cabal of Death and other Muslim extremist cells have trooped in from mountain hideaways and surrendered, although in small numbers. Even more encouraging was a pledge to lay down its arms by the Islamic Salvation Army, the armed wing of the Islamic Salvation Front, the main Islam-based political opposition.

The front's strong showing in the first round of a 1992 parliamentary election led the military-backed government to nullify the vote, which--amid frustration over official corruption, human rights violations and a poor economy--gave rise to the underground war that has bled the country ever since.

Other, more hard-line Islamic militia groups, however, have either rejected the amnesty outright or split on the issue, with some members turning themselves in and others continuing the battle, as recent assaults testify. Chief among them is the Armed Islamic Group, an extremist offshoot of the Islamic Salvation Army that has vowed to fight to the finish.

This week, a fisherman was shot dead and three farmers were decapitated; in mid-August, 29 people were massacred in a single desert village. About 250 have been killed between Aug. 1 and the approach of today's vote. Even that, however, is a vast improvement over the average of 1,000 people who were being killed here each month in the most horrific days of the conflict. The center of this city seems by all accounts secure, although heavily guarded, and Algerians say there is an appreciable decline in the sense of fear that had dominated rural and urban areas alike.

But Algerians of all political stripes agree that restoring order is just the first of Bouteflika's problems. Along with those killed by the militants, tens of thousands of others have disappeared, and there are growing demands on the president to launch an investigation that may well reflect badly on the military and police.

In addition, there is dissatisfaction with the economy and the state of Algerian democracy. Finally, there are lingering doubts about Bouteflika himself.

He was foreign minister after Algeria won independence from France in 1962 but more recently spent a long period in private business. He was elected president in what amounted to a one-man race after six rivals withdrew amid allegations that the campaign was being rigged by the military in true Algerian tradition.

But Bouteflika has shown a willingness to put issues on the table that is uncharacteristic of Algerian politics. He has promised to battle corruption and account for the people who have disappeared; he has adopted as his own a host of long-standing complaints that a handful of "monopolists" control Algeria's oil-driven economy. At a boisterous rally Wednesday, he allowed hecklers from the audience--mothers and wives of those who disappeared--to take the stage with him and rail against the security forces.

This open, table-pounding style has turned many people in his favor, despite early suspicions that he was a front for the military that long has been the behind-the-scenes power here. "We've never had a president like this man," said Aliamood Khahadji, a television technician who made voting a priority today.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company