Leaders of Banned Muslim Party Return to Algeria

Leaders of a banned Muslim fundamentalist party barred from taking power by the army nearly 15 years ago -- after which this nation descended into an Islamic insurgency -- have returned from years of exile, defiantly pledging to resume their political battle.

Rabah Kebir arrived in Algeria over the weekend along with two lieutenants after 14 years' exile in Europe, benefiting from a broad amnesty at the core of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's reconciliation campaign. His plan was passed in a referendum a year ago and the amnesty -- which has opened prison doors and lured home insurgents -- was launched this year.

However, authorities have maintained a ban Kebir's party, and the charter contains a clause outlawing from politics those "responsible for the exploitation of religion that led to the national tragedy."

Kebir, greeted by dozens of supporters upon arrival at the Algiers airport Sunday, brushed aside the political restrictions. He also says his party has moderated its approach.

"We aim to create a political project," Kebir told reporters late Monday. "No one has the right to ban us from being active religiously and politically."

The message from the man who headed the branch in exile of the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, alarms some Algerians mindful of the violence that has killed between 150,000-200,000 people since 1992, according to recent estimates.

Numerous former FIS militants trained with Al Qaeda in camps in Afghanistan. However, Kebir is known as a moderate and the FIS has no links to the largest and best organized insurgency group still operating, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, or GSPC. That movement has officially entered a "blessed union" with Al Qaeda -- announced in a video posted on the Internet last week by the terror organization's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri.

CountryWatch: Algeria

Algeria's conflict erupted in 1992 after the army, apparently fearing an Iranian style revolution, moved in as the FIS was poised to win the Muslim nation's first multiparty elections for parliament.

The voting was canceled, the FIS banned and a state of emergency declared. FIS leaders were jailed or fled. The nation unraveled as citizens joined the insurgency and human rights abuses mounted.

Today, security forces have largely eliminated the insurgency, though sporadic violence lingers.

Kebir was sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court in for the August 1992 bombing of Algiers airport that killed nine people.

"We have moved away from the idea of a rapid, radical Islamization," he said.

"We want a modern state that just does not flagrantly contradict the main principals" of Islam. "It's not the Taliban model ... It's the Algerian model."

Some see Kebir's return as the latest in a string of concessions to Islamic fundamentalists, including the decision earlier this year to broadcast the call to prayer on public television and radio five times daily, and the spring appointment of a prime minister, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, seen as close to the fundamentalists.

"Unless there is an urgent national jump, Algeria is moving toward submission to the Islamists to a degree unimaginable just five years ago," said Mohamed Benchicou, writing in the daily Le Soir.

The amnesty pardons militants who lay down arms, were convicted in absentia or sought at home or abroad for allegedly supporting terrorism. Militants involved in massacres, rapes or bomb attacks in public places are excluded.

At least 2,200 prisoners were released when the amnesty began in March. Up to 300 fighters had turned themselves in shortly before it expired at the end of August, according to Interior Minister Nouredine Zerhouni. Zerhouni has implied that militants can still be pardoned.

Many have thrown their support behind the reconciliation campaign, formalized as the Charter for Peace and Reconciliation. But it has not dealt with the economic and social discontent seen as a root cause of the conflict.

"It tackled the problem from one aspect only, the security aspect," Abdallah Djaballah, leader of the Islamic fundamentalist party El-Islah, said in an interview.

Echoing other critics, he also complained the charter absolves state security forces, despite accusations that they were responsible for the disappearance of thousands of people.