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Algerians vote to end long, bloody conflict

Ninety-seven percent of Algerians who voted in a referendum approved a peace plan that provides a broad amnesty for Islamic extremists, the vote results showed Friday.
Algerian Interior Minister Nourredine Ya
Algerian Interior Minister Nourredine Yazid Zerhouni gives a news conference in Algiers Friday on the results of the vote on the peace charter.Fyaez Nureldine / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Algerians overwhelmingly approved a peace plan that provides a broad amnesty for Islamic extremists but which critics denounced as a whitewash of crimes committed during a bloody internal war, official referendum results showed Friday.

The plan, called the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, got more than 97 percent of Thursday’s vote — a giant win that could further strengthen President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, said Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni.

Nearly 80 percent of the more than 18 million eligible voters cast ballots, the minister said. In Khenchla, a town in the east 60 miles from Algeria’s border with Tunisia, 99.95 percent turned out. But the turnout rate was far lower — just over 11 percent — in the main towns of Tizi-Ouzou and Bejaia in Kabylie, a restive Berber region east of the capital Algiers where there had been calls to boycott the vote.

The interior minister said the results “reflect Algerians’ desire to live in peace and to turn the page of the tragedy that our country has lived through for 15 years.”

He brushed aside reporters’ questions about voter turnout, particularly the nearly 72 percent in Algiers, where it is traditionally not much more than 40 percent at best. The voting and vote-counting were “transparent,” he told a news conference.

Newspapers acclaimed the “yes” victory even before it was announced. “Algerians Say YES,” the government-backed daily El Moudjahid headlined.

Conflict left 150,000 dead
Critics of Bouteflika’s charter, from opposition groups to the families of people who disappeared in Algeria’s bloody Islamic insurgency, had predicted it would easily pass, especially given the lack of real debate. The popular Bouteflika also won a landslide re-election victory in 2004, five years after taking office following an election tarnished by allegations of fraud.

The president said the plan will help close the wounds from the violence and atrocities that gripped the North African nation for more than a decade, leaving an estimated 150,000 dead. The insurgency erupted in 1992 after the army canceled a second round of voting in Algeria’s first multiparty legislative elections to thwart a likely victory by the now-banned fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front.

Some opposition politicians and human rights groups accused the president of using the charter to consolidate his power in the gas-rich nation of nearly 33 million. Critics also lamented a lack of public debate and accused Bouteflika of trying to whitewash years of agony.

The United States voiced regret that the referendum was not preceded by a full public airing of the issues. However, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington “will respect the decision of the Algerian people as it is reflected in the balloting.”

“Each individual country has to find its own pathway,” he said. “This is one particular pathway that, if the Algerian people approve it, will be one best suited for Algeria.”

The interior minister said authorities would now work to translate the lengthy but vaguely worded charter into laws “as quickly as possible.”

Reparations and amnesty
The charter offers something for everyone, from Islamic rebels to families whose loved ones joined the insurgency, or simply vanished.

It would end judicial proceedings for a broad span of Islamists, including those who lay down arms, those sought at home or abroad for allegedly supporting terrorism and those convicted in absentia.

An exception is anyone who perpetrated massacres, rapes or bomb attacks in public places. But the text does not spell out how this would be determined.

The charter also provides for reparations for families whose loved ones disappeared. Victims’ families contend that security forces were responsible for many of the thousands of disappearances.

Calm returns to capital
Bouteflika said recently the violence caused $35 billion in damage and left some 150,000 dead.

Although the insurgents have been largely tamed, sporadic violence continues. The government says 800-1,000 insurgents remain active.

After years of living in fear, calm has returned to the capital, Algiers, and much of this vast country that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Sahara Desert. A sense of normalcy has settled even in places like Sidi Rais, 15 miles south of Algiers at the entry to what became known as “The Triangle of Death” at the height of the insurgency in the 1990s.

Sidi Rais was the scene of one of the bloodiest massacres, with more than 300 townspeople killed on March 27, 1997. There, the pain remains just beneath the surface, with few voters saying they could put the past behind them.

“People who have been so hurt hesitate to pardon,” said Abdelaziz Bensmail, head of the Rais voting station. “It is so easy to say ’sorry’ but in reality here it is difficult to swallow.”

But Keltoume Hamideche, principal of the Mohamed Ikbel primary school that served as a voting station in Algiers, said the country must move on. Citing the example of former enemies France and Germany — “now on very good terms — even Germans with the Jews” — she said: “If we don’t dare, we have nothing. We must dare.”

Asked whether she was worried about pardoning former insurgents, she said: “Even if it upsets me, we want peace.”