Frightened Algerians Flee Nation's Political Carnage : Violence: Many find uneasy refuge in France as Islamic extremists, government hit squads threaten and kill.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

For months, Lazhari had been locked in his home in Algeria, faxing articles to his newspaper, enduring death threats from Islamic militants and battling the muzzle of government censors.

But as more of his colleagues and neighbors were killed, he couldn't stop wondering: Would his be a bullet to the head or a knife across the throat? He hoped for a bullet.

"I never thought I'd leave Algeria," Lazhari said the other day, nervously smoking a Gauloise in the suburban Paris apartment where he stays with friends. "But clearly there is a limit to what one can take."

The 42-year-old journalist asked that his last name not be published, to protect his wife, a teacher, and two daughters, ages 14 and 16, still trying to get a French visa in Algiers, the capital. "Every time the phone rings now, I worry it's someone calling to tell me my family's been killed," Lazhari said.

Lazhari is one of thousands of Algerian refugees arriving these days in France. They include professors and doctors. Engineers and civil servants. Musicians and artists. People from all walks of life who share one characteristic--they are all targets of the day-to-day carnage in Algeria.

Their flight to France, where they aren't especially welcomed by the anti-immigration government, illustrates the depth of their desperation and fear. And the headlines in the French papers quickly justify those fears.

In December, an Air France plane was hijacked by Islamic guerrillas, who were killed before they could blow up the aircraft. A car bomb planted by Islamic militants in January killed 42 passersby in downtown Algiers. In February, the authorities killed several hundred Muslim prisoners while putting down an Algiers prison riot.

But much of the killing in Algeria, by government hit squads on one side and Islamic extremists on the other, no longer makes big headlines. In recent days alone, a woman who refused to wear a Muslim veil was raped and killed, an architect was beheaded, an Algerian U.N. official was shot to death and a union official was slain by a gang that then crushed a boy to death while fleeing in a car.

By the government's count, 20 civilians were killed every day last year in Algeria. The experts say the true figure, including civilians killed by government forces, is probably much higher. U.S. officials estimate that 30,000 Algerians have died in the three-year civil war between the government and Islamic guerrillas.

Algeria's bloodletting began in January, 1992, when the army canceled parliamentary elections that the Islamic Salvation Front, known by its French acronym FIS, appeared on the verge of winning.

Now the extremism of those denied power clashes daily with the ruthlessness of the military regime. The civilian population is left to suffer under 25% unemployment, a critical shortage of housing, raging inflation and, of course, the daily threat of indiscriminate death.

The targeting of foreigners by the most radical Islamic groups has scared away foreign investment; more than 70 foreigners, most of them French citizens, have been killed.

Western governments, including the United States and France, have been pushing the Algerian government to negotiate with its opponents.

In January, a peace proposal was drawn up in Rome by the outlawed FIS and seven other secular and Islamic opposition groups. The plan urged negotiations with the Algerian government on a broad-based transitional administration that would lead to democratic elections. But it included demands that the government release political prisoners, legalize the FIS and pledge that the army would stay out of politics.

The plan was "a positive development that offered real hope for a settlement," a U.S. diplomat familiar with the country said recently. And even the most radical Islamic faction, the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, though not a signatory, urged the government to accept the plan. The GIA has claimed responsibility for most of the killings of foreigners and journalists, as well as the Christmas Eve hijacking of the Air France plane.

But the Algerian government, in what U.S. officials describe as a "serious mistake," has flatly rejected the Rome plan and relaunched a crackdown on Islamic guerrillas.

And the insurgency appears to be moving toward a full-scale confrontation.

Algeria's disparate Islamist factions are pushing to bring together all fighters under a single command, a development that, if successful, would almost certainly increase the bloodshed.

Anwar Haddam, an FIS spokesman in the United States, is urging Western governments to use the threat of withdrawing economic aid to force the government to accept the Rome peace plan.

"Unless there is a strong signal from the West, I don't see any hope for a political solution," Haddam said. "That means the solution will be through escalation of the armed struggle. That's not what we want. But there seems no longer to be an alternative."

The government says it is willing to negotiate only with groups that renounce violence.

"No one can say at this moment how things are going to evolve," said Ramdan Redjala, an Algerian and historian in Paris. "This government is not going to let go of its piece of power. But it will have to negotiate with the FIS. That is inevitable. Because neither side can eradicate the other."

President Liamine Zeroual has announced plans to hold presidential elections in July, but many Algerians doubt that the government--which annulled the last round of free elections, after all--is sincere about democracy. And at this point, few consider an election a realistic option.

"How can you have elections in a cemetery?" Ahmed ben Bella, a former Algerian president who participated in the Rome talks, asked recently. "And there are large regions of the country that the army doesn't control. How can you have an election, or even a campaign, in these conditions?"

In Algeria, meanwhile, conditions deteriorate daily even as the fear among ordinary citizens grows. Beheadings, shootings, bombings, stabbings, torture and immolation remain daily occurrences in Africa's third-largest country.

Women's rights activists took to the streets recently to protest the killings by Islamic groups, and they staged a mock trial of Islamic guerrilla leaders, arguing that "authentic Islam" considers women full partners in society. An estimated 300 women have been killed in the war.

At the same time, the so-called ninja death squads of the government, which target both Islamic leaders and civilians in attacks often designed to look like the work of Islamic groups, have grown more active. Some analysts say as many as seven or eight Islamists are killed for every military death.

"It's absurd to live there," said Hamza Kaidi, an Algerian who writes for the magazine Jeune Afrique in Paris. "You never know where the danger is coming from. The government kills. The Islamics kill."

Many expect the Islamic radicals to avenge the prison blood bath, which Islamic groups contend was staged by the military as a way of wiping out imprisoned FIS leaders. When French police stormed the hijacked Air France plane and killed the four Islamic hijackers, the GIA responded by killing four priests--one Belgian, three French--in Algeria.

Analysts say the Algerian government appears convinced that it can eradicate the FIS, the GIA and other terrorist groups. Frustrated by the lengthening stalemate, though, Islamic groups are becoming more radicalized, more willing to work together--and more convinced of their ability to overthrow the government.

U.S. officials believe that government decisions are being made by a group of 20 to 50 current and former military officials who have created a "wall of intransigence" around President Zeroual. The president himself was reported to favor exploring mediation possibilities, but the military flatly rejected that option.

The West once tolerated the Algerian government out of a shared fear of an Islamic government. European capitals, especially Paris, were concerned that an Islamic government would send even greater numbers of refugees across the Mediterranean.

But the United States and other Western powers have changed their approach, arguing that the illegitimacy of the Algerian government is driving many Algerians into the Islamic camp. Western diplomats say that a negotiated solution offers the only hope of ending the violence and creating a government that safeguards democratic principles.

"Sure, we see a danger. A radical regime dominated by the Armed Islamic Group is no picnic for anyone in the region," said a U.S. official who asked not to be identified. "But we have to recognize that Tunisia, Morocco and Libya are not Algeria. They have evolved in different fashions, and they have different strengths and weaknesses in their societies."

France is the most important player among Algeria's international friends. It is home to nearly 1 million Algerians, and 75,000 French citizens, most of whom also have Algerian citizenship, live in Algeria.

Algeria's status as a French colony ended in 1962, after a bloody, eight-year war of independence. But economic and cultural links remain strong. French exports to Algeria exceed $2 billion a year.

These days, though, there are deep divisions in the French government over how best to handle the military-backed regime in Algeria and the continuing Islamic insurgency.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has called on the Algerian government to negotiate with its Islamic opponents. But Charles Pasqua, France's irascible Interior minister, says it is naive to believe that one can negotiate with the FIS. "I don't believe for a minute these people will ever abandon their goal of imposing Islamic fundamentalist regimes," Pasqua said.

Although Algeria has not figured in France's presidential campaign, the dispute over policy toward the African nation may nevertheless be decided in the May elections. Juppe's candidate, Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, is leading Pasqua's candidate, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, in the polls.

Juppe's position has been strengthened by the decision of the FIS to sign the Rome peace plan. Although some doubt the front's sincerity, many Western governments view that signature as a concrete sign of the willingness of Islamic radicals to accept a democratic government in Algeria.

Certainly, the war in Algeria reaches deeply into Europe, which is a big customer for Algeria's oil and natural gas.

The hijackers of the Air France plane at Christmas said they were protesting the French government's support of the Algerian government. At the same time, police say Islamic guerrillas in Algeria are relying heavily on clandestine support networks across Europe.

Last month, police in Belgium raided a radical Muslim support network, seizing arms and forged documents and arresting nine, including a leader of the FIS. French police have arrested dozens of suspected Algerian extremists and seized hundreds of weapons in raids throughout the country in recent months.

France, which remains Algeria's biggest trading partner, has quietly moved to isolate the Algerian regime, hoping to pressure it to open talks with its opponents. After the Air France hijacking, the French temporarily suspended air and sea links. And the French recently suspended delivery of military helicopters to Algeria.

In addition, the French government, concerned about the safety of its expatriates in Algeria, has closed all its consulates. And in a move sharply criticized by Algerians, it has made it much more difficult to obtain visas by forcing all Algerian applicants to apply, by mail, to a Foreign Ministry office in western France.

The number of French visas granted daily, once as high as 1,000, has fallen to fewer than a dozen. Out of thousands of Algerian applicants for political asylum last year, only 18 were approved.

And yet frightened Algerians continue to seek refuge in France, staying with friends, family or other refugees.

Hugo Colona, who works at a center in Paris that helps Algerian refugees, sees about 30 a week. Most say they have left because they had finally seen too many friends, colleagues or neighbors die. Even in France, some say they receive telephone threats from Islamic militants.

"They don't want to stay here," Colona said. "They all hope to be able to go back in a year or two. But from what they tell me, the situation has worsened a great deal."

As they pass their long days and nights in France, the Algerian intellectuals, doctors, journalists and artists often gather, in apartments or nightclubs, for deep discussions about the problems back home.

What baffles many of these refugees is the West's reluctance to provide economic and military support to the Algerian government. And while they say they don't support the government, they blame the Islamic extremists for tearing their society apart.

"It's dangerous to put the government and Islamists in the same basket," said Dalila Meziane, an Algerian lawyer who fled to France two years ago. "Of course, this government is corrupt and undemocratic, and it cannot stay in power. But the main enemy at the moment is the Islamic Salvation Front.

"After that, we will see about democracy," she added. "But we first have to stop the killing."

Kraft reported from Pantin and Wright from Washington. Times researcher Sarah White in Paris contributed to this report.

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