- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

PARIS, Feb. 28 (UPI) — French President Jacques Chirac leaves Sunday for a landmark trip to Algeria, aiming to strengthen once-frosty bilateral relations between France and its former North African colony.

Chirac paid a quick visit to Algiers in December 2001, after floods devastated parts of the country. But the upcoming three-day trip is billed as the first visit by a French head of state since the devastating civil war that rocked the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria of the 1990s.

"It's really marking the point that the decade of violence is over — that France is ready to engage in Algeria, and that Algeria is ready to receive a French head of state," said Louis Martinez, a specialist on Algeria at the Paris-based Center for International Research and Studies.

"And it shows France remains a friend of the Arab world … which is a very good gesture internationally, with the current concerns about the war against Iraq," Martinez added.

France's colonial rule of Algeria began in 1830 and lasted until 1962, when Paris and Algiers signed a cease-fire to end an eight-year war for independence.

Chirac's visit coincides with a new report released by Amnesty International, accusing the Algerian government of practicing systematic torture. But the human rights group also praised the government of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for being more open to questions of human rights violations — a taboo subject just a few years back.

Both the government and Islamist militants were accused of widespread human rights violations during the civil war, which killed upward of 100,000 people. The worst of the fighting ended in the late 1990s, but clashes continue between government forces and Muslim extremists. And thousands of Algerians, who disappeared during the conflict, remain unaccounted for.

"The families of victims deserve an end to the anguish of uncertainty, and cannot wait for the promise of long-term reform to be realized," Amnesty said in a statement Thursday out of the capital Algiers.

Some experts predict Chirac will likely stick to generalities during his visit — urging greater democratic reforms in Algeria, for example, rather than specifically addressing human rights violations. Talk of reconciliation with Islamist groups is also unlikely, Martinez said.

"With Sept. 11, the Islamists have been dehumanized to a certain extent," Martinez said. "Today few people dare to defend them."

Relations between France and its former colony have steadily improved in recent years. French businesses, which pulled stakes in Algeria during the civil war, are slowly returning.

Late last year, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin inaugurated a new French high school in Algiers. And this year, France launched a special, cultural "Algeria year in France."

Bouteflika's government has also been shoring up relations with the United States. Washington recently agreed to sell weapons to Algiers, and is helping government forces fight against terrorism.

But Martinez, for one, believes France is more than happy to leave Algerian defense ties to Washington.

"I think France is much more interested in building relations based on economic, social and cultural ties with Algeria," he said. "French engagement in anti-terrorism in Algeria could lead to repercussions on French soil."

Indeed, in the mid-1990s, Algerian extremists launched a series of bombing attacks in France in retaliation for Paris' perceived complicity with Algeria's military-backed government.

Chirac's visit to Algiers will likely be met with calls for greater French business investment — a point underscored during a January visit to Paris by Algerian Prime Minister Ali Benflis. Oil-rich Algeria is trying to diversify its economy to stress agriculture and other sectors. But foreign businesses are wary of investing until they see greater strides toward privatization and banking reforms.

Meanwhile, a two-day strike virtually paralyzed the country earlier this week, as picketers accused the government of ignoring the growing economic hardships facing ordinary Algerians.

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