A prominent leader of Algeria's outlawed Islamic Salvation Front who opposed the government but had spoken out for peace and reconciliation was assassinated today as he was leaving a dental clinic in Algiers.
Abdelkader Hachani, who had been under police supervision for his anti-government politics, was shot twice in the head and once in the chest by an unknown assailant, according to news service reports from the Algerian capital and a statement on the state-run radio. He died in an Algiers hospital less than two hours later.
Hachani's murder was a fresh blow to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's efforts to end the armed insurgency in which a radical Muslim underground has sought to overthrow Algeria's army-backed, secular government for almost eight years. Bouteflika's office condemned the "odious killing" of Hachani, believed to be in his early forties.
No group claimed responsibility for the killing. With his calls for an end to Algeria's bloodletting, Hachani could have angered the extreme Islamic fringe that has vowed to carry on the violence despite a decision by the Islamic Salvation Front to heed Bouteflika's call for reconciliation. But with his criticism of Bouteflika for not going far enough, he also could have angered hard-liners in the security forces.
Only two months ago, Algerian voters gave resounding approval in a referendum to Bouteflika's program of "civil concord." But the violence that had ebbed this year, during the months before and after Bouteflika's election in April, has picked up again in recent weeks.
More than 100 people have died in terrorist violence since the beginning of November. About 20 were killed Saturday in a clash between security forces and guerrillas on a main road leading south of Algiers. That attack took place near a restaurant known as a key army observation post for terrorist activity.
"They wanted to make a statement," said a diplomat in Algiers, "and whoever killed Hachani wanted to make a statement too."
Hachani's Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win parliamentary power in 1992 when generals ruling the country canceled the elections. Hachani spent five years in jail for denouncing the cancellation and emerged in 1997 to live with his parents while under close police scrutiny.
The struggle set off by the events in 1992 has claimed as many as 100,000 lives, most of them civilian men, women and children caught in the middle.
Bouteflika has sought to promote unity and weaken the radical Muslim movement by granting amnesty last July to thousands of armed militants, including those who belong to the Islamic Salvation Army, the front's armed wing, as well as those who belong to extreme guerrilla groups that spun off from the Islamic Salvation Army--and that so far have rebuffed his peacemaking.
But the president has been criticized by Hachani, among others, for not taking the next step of legalizing the banned party or releasing its most prominent leaders, Abassi Madani, who is under house arrest, and Ali Belhadj, who is in prison.
Hachani also had angered radical Muslim elements by speaking out in favor of peace and reconciliation. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is only three weeks away, and in past years its advent has coincided with stepped-up attacks by fundamentalist guerrillas still engaged in the underground war against the government.
The deadline for Bouteflika's amnesty expires in January, and he has promised a "merciless" drive to eradicate terrorists who have not surrendered by then.