Algerian hostage siege: ‘It could only have ended with a massive assault’

The Guardian reports: As the Algerian hostage siege continues and the death toll after an army assault remains uncertain, the military’s swift intervention with force appeared to be in keeping with its tough approach to insurgent operations in the wake of Algeria’s brutal civil war.

The military-dominated regime in Algiers – which remains in place despite the Arab spring that toppled leaderships elsewhere in north Africa – is the biggest defence powerhouse in the region, with a well-equipped and extensive army.

Algeria had 10 years of bloody internal conflict in the 1990s which saw up to 200,000 deaths, and the Algiers generals maintain their tradition of a no-negotiation, take-no-prisoners approach to insurgent assaults. The unprecedented gas field hostage-taking struck at the heart of Algeria’s economic power – its hydrocarbon sites – which meant high stakes for the regime.

Faced with the return of major terrorist operations on its home turf, Algiers seemed likely to want to send a stark message to its own population, that dramatic hostage-taking would be met with a dramatic response.

The Algerian communications minister, Mohamed Said Belaid, said during the siege: “This is an attack of multinational terrorists against the Algerian people and the Algerian state. The objective is clear: to destabilise Algeria.” He said that faced with hostage-takers who wanted “to destroy the national economy” and the state, “there would be no negotiations, or blackmail” and that Algeria would be “relentless in the fight against terrorists”.

It remains unclear which Algerian units led Thursday’s first military assault on the gas field where foreign and Algerian hostages were being held by Islamist groups and where scores are feared dead following the army’s operation. There was no confirmation whether the assault was led by ground troops, special forces or specialised counter-terrorism units who harked back to the days of Algeria’s now disbanded so-called Ninja units in the 1990s, which fought Islamists and were trained by the Soviet-era Russian military.

I knew it would end in a bloodbath,” Charles Pellegrini, former head of the anti-terrorist cell at the Elysée, told Le Parisien. “Trained in Russia in the Soviet era, the senior ranks of the Algerian army never negotiate with terrorists and always deal with these types of situations Russian-style.” [Continue reading…]

Ian Black writes: The slaughter in the Sahara has been a terrible shock for the foreign countries whose unfortunate nationals were involved. But no-one should have been surprised that the Algerian government adopted such an aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach to the deadly drama at In Amenas. As one macabre joke put it: “What’s worse then being kidnapped by al-Qaida? Answer: being rescued by the Algerian army.”

Algeria’s modern history is steeped in blood. In nationalist historiography the long struggle for independence against the French colonial power came at the price of a “million martyrs.” Even if that figure is exaggerated it added to the aura of mythical sacrifice led by the FLN. The Kiplingesque title of the best history of the liberation war in English – “A Savage War of Peace” (by Alistair Horne) – captured that brilliantly.

Thirty years after winning its independence from France Algeria was plunged into another terrible conflict. That began in 1991 when the army stepped in to cancel the second round of parliamentary elections which an Islamist party was poised to win. Victory for the FIS, went the famous warning at the time – and which was accepted by western governments – would have meant “one man, one vote – once.” The awful result was years of carnage that saw another 100,000 dead. Brutal massacres by terrorists were matched by brutal massacres by the Algerian security forces, sometimes disguised as the terrorists they were fighting. [Continue reading…]

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