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No formalities to mark end of Algerian war

2012-03-13 11:43

Algiers - Sunday marks 50 years since the end of Algeria's war of independence from France, but there will be no formalities to mark the milestone for fear of reopening old wounds in an election year.

The anniversary of the signing of the Evian Accords that rang in independence for the north Africa nation after 132 years of colonial rule, will be a low-key affair.

Paris has planned no official ceremonies, but historians, journalists and pressure groups have organised debates about the consequences of the conflict in which both sides are accused of atrocities.

For its part, Algiers has announced an anniversary bash for July 5, the day it celebrates its independence from France.

Both countries called in December, during a visit to Algiers by Interior Minister Claude Gueant, for moderation during this period and to avoid reigniting tensions.

But French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on the election campaign trail, refuelled the debate when he insisted on Thursday that France will not "repent" for the Algerian war.

"There were abuses," during the war of 1954 to 1962, the president told a local newspaper. "Atrocities were committed by both sides. These abuses, these atrocities have been and must be condemned, but France cannot repent for having conducted this war," he added.

Two days later, Algeria's Minister of State Abdelaziz Belkhadem, who also leads the National Liberation Front party, said France will ultimately have no choice but to apologise.

"Whether President Sarkozy accepts it or not, the day will come that France will apologise for what it has done in Algeria," Belkhadem told journalists.

Key dispute

Algeria won its independence in a seven-and-a-half-year war against its colonial ruler.

Algerian historians today talk of 1.5 million Algerian victims of the war, while their French colleagues put the total number of deaths for both sides at 400 000.

France remains divided over how to mark the Algerian war which threatened to tear its society apart. For years, rival factions have commemorated their own victims, including pro-independence protesters killed in Paris in the 1960s.

The issue came to the fore again when the French parliament recently considered a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turk forces amounted to genocide.

Turkey accused France of hypocrisy for its own hand in thousands of killings committed during Algeria's struggle for independence, and threatened to erect a monument to Algerian victims of French colonial violence.

France only recognised the Algerian conflict as a "war" in 1999.

About a million European descendants of settlers in Algeria left after independence, most of them to settle in France.

A key dispute between the two countries relates to the treatment of Algerians who served as auxiliaries in the French army, the so-called Harkis, thousands of whom were murdered when French forces withdrew from Algeria.

In his 2007 electoral campaign, Sarkozy had promised, if elected, to officially recognise France's responsibility for abandoning the Harkis.

Peace agreement

Last Friday, however, he would concede merely the "injustices" suffered by the Harkis and said France owed them "a debt", without making any mention of reparations as he did five years ago.

The signing of the peace agreement between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front in the French Alpine resort of Evian on March 18, 1962, was approved with a 90-percent majority in a French referendum the following month.

Relations between the countries have zigzagged since then as the war remained an emotive issue. The anniversary of the peace pact comes as both nations prepare for key elections.

French voters head to the polls on April 22 and May 6 to elect a president.

From an Algerian point of view, the French campaign has taken on anti-Islamic tones at a time that north African and Muslim communities in France feel victimised by discussions on limiting immigration and practices such as halal butchery.

On May 10, Algerians, including an estimated 800 000 listed on voters' rolls in France, will elect a new parliament.

That poll comes in the wake of reforms, criticised by the opposition, announced by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in a bid to preempt Arab Spring contagion in his country.

The performance of Islamist parties will be a closely-watched issue.