'I saw Algerian soldiers massacre civilians'
Jon Henley in Paris, Guardian, February 14, 2001
The French foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, made a flying five-hour visit to Algiers yesterday as tension between the two countries was increased by allegations that Algerian troops are as guilty of civilian atrocities as the Islamist militants they are supposed to be fighting.
Mr Védrine pointedly refused to discuss the accusation, made by a former Algerian army officer, Habib Souaidia, in a book published in Paris last week.
"I am here to work, to feed and develop the important links between France and Algeria," he said before a meeting with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The Algerian government is furious at the credence the French media and intellectuals have given to The Dirty War, a detailed and shocking account of almost a decade of alleged Algerian army involvement in the massacre of tens of thousands of innocent civilians.
"I have seen colleagues burn alive a 15-year-old child. I have seen soldiers disguising themselves as terrorists and massacring civilians," Mr Souaidia wrote. "I have seen colonels kill mere suspects in cold blood. I have seen officers torture fundamentalists to death. I have seen too many things."
A group of prominent French and north African intellectuals has seized on Mr Souaidia's account to denounce France's the kid-glove approach to the Bouteflika regime, calling it "complicity in crimes against humanity".
"For too long the French government has supported Algerian policy which, under cover of a fight against terrorism, aims at nothing less than the eradication, both political and physical, of any opposition whatsoever," the group wrote in the daily Le Monde.
More than 100,000 people, most of them civilians, are estimated to have died violently in Algeria since the government, backed by the armed forces, cancelled a general election in which Muslim fundamentalists had taken a commanding lead in 1992.
According to a leaked Algerian army report, 9,200 people were killed last year alone. The deaths continued last weekend, when 27 civilians - including eight women and 13 children aged from six months to 14 years - were slaughtered in Berrouaghia, a shantytown 60 miles south of Algiers.
In Algeria, The Dirty War has met with outrage in the government-controlled press, which accused Mr Souaidia of being a "common thief" and a "soldier turned criminal".
The former officer's family in the small eastern town of Tebessa have received threatening visits from army security officers, and his brother's video rental shop has been ransacked by unknown intruders.
Mr Souaidia, a volunteer special forces parachute officer, fled Algeria to France last summer after being sentenced to four years in an army prison on theft charges which he says were trumped up.
He says he witnessed many killings staged by the Algerian army to look as if they were done by fundamentalists.
"The generals want to stay in power," he said yesterday. "To justify that, the war has to continue, so we can say to the international community, 'Look, these are the terrorists we are fighting against, look what they do. We need help, give us money'."
Mr Souaidia says his first experience of the "dirty war" came in spring 1993, when he had just left the special forces college. His platoon picked up a group of 20 officers from a supposedly pro-Islamist village where it had dropped them off an hour earlier. Back in barracks, one showed Mr Souaidia his blood-stained bayonet, and mimed drawing it across his throat.
"The day after next, the local and national papers announced a dozen deaths in a terrorist attack in that village," he said. "I understood. I had just taken part, indirectly, in a massacre."
He also recalls accompanying commandos from the army's anti-terrorist squad to Lakhdaria, a reputed rebel stronghold 50 miles from Algiers. Disguised as bearded fundamentalists, the soldiers' mission was to kidnap six suspected activists.
"All the suspects of course ended up being killed," he wrote. "We arrested people, we tortured them, we killed them and then we burned their bodies." In that region, he added, "I must have seen at least 100 people liquidated".
The unit's barracks in Lakhdaria, by a main road, was transformed into a torture centre. Locked in the cellar, suspects "were tortured by military security".
"Alsatian dogs were let loose on them, they were made to sit on broken bottles or to drink bleach. Anyone who entered there was dead; it didn't matter if they had done nothing at all."
The book is the first inside account of the workings of today's Algerian army, naming places, dates and officers in verifiable detail. It is all the more credible because Mr Souaidia shows no sympathy for the rebel cause. "I simply want the lies to end," he said yesterday, calling for an international commission to investigate massacres he believes have taken up to 200,000 lives: twice the official estimates.
"We must arrest and judge those who are guilty, not just the fundamentalists ... Everybody says it's the terrorists who do the killing, but the reality is different: the generals have done the same thing."
France is Algeria's biggest trading partner, selling it £1.6bn in goods and services last year and spending £1.4 bn on its oil and gas. A French foreign ministry spokesman said Mr Védrine would not be raising the subject of Mr Souaidia's memoirs.
"France's position on alleged human rights violations in Algeria will be coordinated with the European Union," he said.