18. Algerian peace campaign kicks off with deaths

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Islamist extremists killed four people on the first day of campaigning in Algeria for a peace referendum scheduled for September 16 by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the press said August 28.

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Islamist extremists killed four people on the first day of campaigning in Algeria for a peace referendum scheduled for September 16 by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the press said August 28.

Two women were killed and seven other people injured on the morning of August 26 by a bomb blast in a mausoleum at Miliana, 120 kilometers west of Algiers. Survivors said a bomb was hidden in a dish of food carried there by a woman.

The mausoleums of certain spiritual leaders are frequented by women who go there to pray, but this practice is considered anti-Islamic by armed radicals, who have destroyed many such sites.

Levels of violence in Algeria, where at least 100,000 people have lost their lives since 1992, fell for a few months after ex-foreign minister and veteran diplomat Bouteflika was elected president in April.

The new head of state has taken measures to ease tensions and is staking his presidency on next month’s referendum on his proposals for "civil reconciliation."

August, however, has seen a sharp new escalation in bloodletting, with at least 140 reported deaths. The insurgency began in 1992 after the cancellation of a second round of general elections that the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was expected to win.

On the night of August 26, hours after the campaign on the referendum started, three men shot a metalworker in the eastern city of Constantine. Papers commented that he appeared simply to have crossed their paths and that they had been planning other attacks.

The same night, a civil defense "patriot" armed by the authorities as part of local protection groups had his throat slit and his head cut off at Maadid, near Msila, 240 kilometers (150 miles) southeast of the capital, Al Watan daily reported.

Meanwhile, a main opposition party, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), has sharply criticized the peace referendum, calling it a "masquerade aimed at duping citizens, by giving them false hopes."

After meeting in Algiers, the national council of the FFS did not, however, issue any recommendations for the vote, when some 17.5 million Algerians will be asked to cast their ballots.

Veteran politician Hocine Ait Ahmed heads the FFS, one of only two parties apart from the FIS to win parliamentary seats before the January 1992 election was called off when it became clear that fundamentalists would sweep the board.

In a letter to the council, Ait Ahmed, currently in Switzerland, warned: "We cannot give backing to a false measure for a false solution," adding that Bouteflika "considers he needs a plebiscite to forget an election which really wasn’t one."

Bouteflika was elected president on April 15 after all his six rivals, including Ait Ahmed, pulled out of the poll, contending it was rigged in advance.

Algerians will be asked: "Are you for or against the president’s moves to achieve peace and civil concord?"

Such moves are contained in a law already passed by parliament, granting a partial amnesty for Islamic extremists not guilty of "blood" crimes or rape.

Those who took part in murders or massacres could receive lighter sentences if they turn themselves in to the authorities. The death penalty would also be scrapped.

The legislation has been rejected by the radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), held responsible for the latest attacks.

But it has been accepted by the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the armed wing of the FIS, which surrendered to state authority in June.

Bouteflika has ruled out a general amnesty, arguing that "it is not easy to ask the families of victims to exercise the same level of forgiveness as that of the state."

Some of those families have formed a "national committee against forgetting treason," he said.

But the president has gained the support of others, including the widow of union leader Abdelhak Benhamouda, assassinated in 1995.

Calling for a massive turnout, Bouteflika has billed the referendum as "a moment of national destiny."

The government has called on the country’s 14,000 mosques to preach in favor of the "civil reconciliation."

Banners calling for a "yes" vote in the streets of Algiers read: "Civil reconciliation = an end to the crisis."

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