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30 January 1997 Edition

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Dream of Algerian freedom turns to nightmare

by Dara MacNeill
In under five years, some 60,000-100,000 people have died in Algeria. Yet it is only of late that the conflict has commanded any sustained media attention.

Even then, this appears to have more to do with the reported savagery of some of the killings - with a crude, homemade guillotine - and the reputed zealotry of the government's Islamic opponents, than with any concern to understand what is actually occurring in the country.

For a conflict of any sort to attract global attention these days, it must possess what marketing types call USP: a Unique Selling Point.

Kuwait had oil. Initially, that proved insufficient. And then miraculously, an eloquent escapee from Iraqi-occupied Kuwait surfaced in Washington with lurid tales of live babies being torn from their incubators by Iraqi soldiers.

Kuwait had its USP and President Bush got his war. The `escapee', it later transpired, was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, and a royal liar to boot. The entire tale had been dreamt up by a lobbying firm in the employ of a royal family anxious to retrieve its playground in the Middle East.

Thereafter, Kuwait became compulsive, prime-time viewing.

Rwanda's USP was `tribal savagery' and the sheer weight of people butchered. Consequently, it merited curious, rather detached anthropological attention from the rest of the world. If nothing else, such displays of `tribal savagery' absolved the world of responsibility for a continent slowing being submerged under the consequences of European colonialism.

And so five years after the Algerian conflict began and perhaps 100,000 deaths later, a portable guillotine finally determines that it merits space in our media.

That is not to doubt the veracity of the reports detailing the existence of this guillotine. Installed on the back of a pick-up truck, the homemade device has been used - apparently since early January - to carry out public executions. The executions have, it is believed, been perpetrated by the Islamic Armed Group (GIA).

Barbaric as they are, these represent but a small proportion of the numbers killed since 1992. Equally, government forces have shown no noticeable qualms about killing and executing those it believes are opponents.

Indeed, the present conflict dates from early 1992, when the Algerian regime abruptly cancelled elections that were already ongoing, on the basis that extremist Islamists looked certain to win. That was untrue. It is likely that any new government would have been a coalition of sorts, and included Islamic elements.

The regime simply used the spectre of `Islamic extremism' - the West's current bogeyman - to abort a contest it was destined to lose.

Perhaps the regime might have more usefully sought an explanation for its obvious unpopularity among the country's estimated 25 million population.

Would endemic corruption and creeping poverty provide an answer? Algeria, following the successful conclusion of its liberation struggle with France, in 1962, became something of a beacon for liberation movements throughout Africa and the Middle East. It was here for example, in the 1960s, that both the PLO and the ANC established their first significant presence outside their respective countries.

Yet, today, it is to France that the Algerian regime has turned, relying on its complicit silence, covert arms transfers and backroom diplomacy to eradicate opposition at home and stifle criticism abroad.

Thus, a combination of French persuasiveness and Western fear of `Islamic extremists' has combined to allow this conflict to continue unabated.

Last week, the head of Algeria's (exiled) opposition Hocine Ait Ahmed called for the appointment of a special (outside) mediator to resolve the conflict. He also accused the regime, headed by President Zeroual, of using the country's state of emergency to crush any and all nascent opposition groups. Hocine Ait Ahmed's call echoed that issued two years ago by all opposition leaders - including Islamic leaders - for the government to engage in dialogue. It was rejected. And several western powers were happy to see a proxy do battle for them, against a largely imagined foe.

Anglo-French backing for Burmese regime

Moves by the European Union to remove EU trade privileges from the Burmese dictatorship will, it seems certain, be obstructed by Britain and France. Although still under consideration by the EU, MEPs are being told privately that both countries will sabotage the proposal.

The Burmese regime, operating under the appropriately Orwellian title of SLORC - State Law and Order Restoration Council - presides over what has become the world's largest forced labour camp. Thousands of citizens, acting as slave labourers, currently construct the infrastructure SLORC has deemed the country requires, much of it constructed with drug money and Western investment. Thus, the French oil company Total has invested $1.2 billion in the construction of a lucrative oil pipeline across Burma. The path of the pipeline is cleared by forced labour, including many children.

These practices have been repeatedly documented. Equally, British investors are enthusiastically embracing Burma's tourist potential - largely financed by drug money and promoted by SLORC. Eight Burmese cabinet members recently attended the wedding of the son of the country's leading heroin exporter.

It is believed Britain is concerned the EU move would damage future trading potential with the country, along with damaging Britain's existing, lucrative trade with one of Burma's closest friends: Indonesia.

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