Algerian tragedy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 January, 1998, 12:00am

The scale and savagery of the massacres in Algeria almost defy belief and makes this a legitimate issue for international action. Up to 150,000 people are believed to have died during the five-year battle between Islamic extremists and a military-backed government - more than during the entire Bosnian conflict.

Many were butchered in the most gruesome manner imaginable: hacked to death, then decapitated and disembowelled. Such savagery is supposedly the work of extremists, but often it occurs in villages overlooking army camps, raising suspicions of official complicity.

Recently the pace of killings has escalated with more than 1,000 massacred in the past fortnight. A hundred more died in the remote village of Sidi Hamed on Sunday. These horrifying figures have forced a previously silent world to express belated concern, although not even Iran's accusation of direct government involvement in the massacres has altered the Algerian line that this is an internal affair, and outside interference is unwelcome.

While the slaughter continues, the world makes only half-hearted gestures of protest. France was finally stung into reminding Algiers of its duty to protect its citizens, but hastily back-tracked in the face of furious protests from the military-backed government.

Washington limited its concern to calling for an international inquiry, a suggestion Algiers immediately rejected. US and European leaders remain firmly opposed to sanctions, the one step that could force Algeria to do more to end the killings since 90 per cent of its oil and gas is exported to Europe.

Such inaction smacks of double-standards when compared to the stringent sanctions imposed on other countries such as Libya and Iraq. These massacres have gone far beyond the point where they can be dismissed as Algeria's internal affair. If its government continues to resist outside intervention, then the international community has a duty to use every means at its disposal to force a change of heart before thousands more die.