Shaking off a tainted election victory, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria has moved quickly to put his mark on efforts to bring peace to his bloodied, demoralized nation.
Bouteflika, who was elected in April, announced Saturday that "thousands" of an estimated 20,000 political prisoners serving time for their roles in terrorist activities will be granted amnesty and released as part of what he described as a plan for "civil concord" aimed at ending a seven-year insurgency by Islamic militants.
Reports in the Algerian press today said as many as 15,000 people might be eligible, but a Justice Ministry official in Algiers, quoted by Reuters news service, put the number at 5,000.
Bouteflika, the first civilian president of Algeria, said the plan -- abruptly submitted this week to the Algerian Parliament for approval -- will be put to a vote, reportedly next month. He declared, as he does frequently, that he will "go home" if it is rejected.
"I promised Algerians during the election campaign that I would make peace. I will make peace," he said.
The rebellion in Algeria began in 1992, after the military-backed government canceled elections to prevent the anticipated victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a fundamentalist Muslim party that captured the votes of disillusioned Algerians. Despite Bouteflika's seeming need for the continued support of powerful generals, he described the canceled 1992 election as having done "violence" to Algeria.
Bouteflika's amnesty program follows dramatic proclamations of support for the new president's peace initiatives by the leader of the outlawed FIS, Abassi Madani, and by the head of the FIS's armed wing, Madani Mezeraq. Three weeks ago the two FIS leaders announced a truce with Algerian authorities, although the armed wing has been observing a truce since November 1997.
The other principal underground army, the Armed Islamic Group, continues its campaign of bombings and throat-slashings and has denounced those inclined to participate in the reconciliation plan.
A remarkable measure of Bouteflika's determination to deal directly with the horrors of the war was his remark at an economic conference in Switzerland over the weekend -- carried live on Algerian TV -- that the death toll has reached 100,000. Previous official estimates never put the figure over 25,000, and Western media and human rights groups have seldom offered estimates as high as Bouteflika's.
Bouteflika, a onetime foreign minister, was elected April 15 in balloting marked by low voter turnout widely attributed to public disgust after all six of his opponents charged electoral fraud and withdrew. Bouteflika was perceived as the anointed candidate of generals and business executives who control power behind the scenes in Algeria. But in the campaign, he showed an independent streak and a sometimes bizarre rhetorical line.
His choice of a posh conference center in Crans Montana, Switzerland, to address the heavily disenfranchised Algerian people was striking in that regard. So are his repeated threats to fold his tent if Algeria's fractious political system does not follow his lead; he has often compared himself to Charles de Gaulle, the late French leader who favored this tactic.
Bouteflika's emerging style is at odds with that of the gray men who for 20 years have served the interests of the generals as presidents of the former French colony. It has generated searching questions about Bouteflika's standing with the most hard-line military leaders -- known as anti-terrorist "eradicators" -- and the degree of their approval for his peacemaking gestures.
The draft of the amnesty law excludes anyone with what Bouteflika called "blood on their hands" -- those who have killed, caused infirmity, raped or set off explosive devices in public places. This would free people who drove cars or hid militants in their homes, as well as other sympathizers who have "repented" or who turn in their weapons and agree to fight against the rebellion.