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Algeria’s Protestants: We Want Our Churches Back!.

Algerian church
The church in Mostaganem was converted into a clinic in 1976. It is now occupied by a charity. (World Watch Monitor)

The Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) has reaffirmed its desire to regain control of several former churches used today for other purposes.

Christians are the distinct minority in Algeria, representing less than 1 percent of Algeria’s 38 million inhabitants, and they often face restrictions when seeking to build new churches.

The presence of Protestant Christians in Algeria dates back to the French colonial era, when a number of churches were built. However, after the country gained independence in 1962, many of these buildings were given to other purposes.

One example is the church of Mostaganem, in the northwest of the country, which became a clinic in 1976. In January 2012, the clinic moved locations, and the EPA sent one of its members to guard the premises in the hope of restoring the building to its former use. However, local authorities ordered the closure of the premises and the expulsion of EPA members, instead allowing a charity to move into the building.

The EPA filed a complaint against both the local authorities and the charity.

“Instead of returning the church, located in the city center, to the EPA, local authorities have just given it to a charity,” Pastor Mustapha Krim, EPA president, told World Watch Monitor.

“The occupants broke in and changed the locks,” he said.

The situation of Mostaganem is not an isolated case. In the northeastern city of Béjaïa, a church once belonging to the Evangelical Reformed Church (now the EPA) was given by local authorities to the General Union of Algerian Workers after the church’s pastor fell seriously ill and returned to France.

Now Protestants in cities like Béjaïa and Mostaganem are petitioning for their old churches to be returned.

“I started to take the first steps in 2003,” explained Krim. “I turned first to the governor, who never replied. I wrote at least eight letters requesting hearings to previous governors. Once, one deputy governor received me; he filled a small file, and since then no news. In addition, we sent a letter to the Ministry of the Interior and even to the presidency, but nothing has ever transpired.

“This church [in Béjaïa] belongs lawfully to the Protestant Church of Algeria. At our request, the Ministry of Religious Affairs has commissioned a survey to determine who owns the premises. Finally, the investigation concluded that this property belongs to the Reformed Church, which later became the Protestant Church in Algeria.”

After completing in vain all the administrative procedures necessary for the recovery of the church, the EPA brought the case to court, but there have been no tangible results.

“The judge is not doing his job,” Krim said. “Each time, he argues that a document was missing in our dossier, whereas our lawyer had provided the necessary document for a complete dossier.”

The case is currently with the Council of State (a high court responsible for settling disputes), and the next development may take time, EPA’s lawyer told Word Watch Monitor.

For now, the two Protestant communities in Béjaïa continue to hold their meetings in the cramped confines of an administrative block of buildings, which hosts corporate and medical offices.

Article 36 of the Algerian Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, while freedom of worship is guaranteed by Article 2 of Ordinance No. 06-03.

But since the promulgation on March 20, 2006, of a law regulating non-Muslim worship, there have been a number of attacks and acts of intimidation against Christians.

In May 2011, the governor of the northeast province of Béjaïa invoked the 2006 law to order the closure of seven protestant churches accused of operating “illegally.”

In January 2011, the Tafat church in the northern Kabylia area was reportedly ransacked and set on fire by radical Islamists.

Many Christians have been charged under the 2006 Act for “actions tending towards converting a Muslim to another religion”.

Sentences range between two and five years’ imprisonment and a fine of between 500,000 and 1 million dinars (5,000 to 10,000 Euros).

Several cases remain unresolved, including that of Mohamed Ibouène, who was sentenced on February 14, 2013, to pay a fine of 100,000 dinars for proselytizing. He has appealed the ruling, but the date of a new trial is not yet known.

In 2008, Christian teacher Habiba Kouider was charged under the 2006 law for illegal possession of Bibles. Her trial drew widespread media attention and contempt from the European Parliament and human rights watchdogs, such as Amnesty International. The case is ongoing.

Algeria is ranked No. 29 on the 2013 World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most under pressure for their faith. The creator of the list, Open Doors International, claims pressure on Christians in Algeria is increasing, due primarily to the Islamization of the region in the wake of the Arab Spring.

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Worries Mount Mostly Secular Tunisia Becoming New al-Qaida Base.

TUNIS, Tunisia — The hunt for al-Qaida-linked militants in a mountainous region near Tunisia’s borders with Algeria in recent days has raised alarm that the birthplace of the Arab Spring has become the latest battleground for violent jihadis.

With neighboring Algeria and Libya full of weapons and violent movements of their own, Tunisia is struggling to prevent the growth of armed groups while making its own tentative transition to democracy.

The news out of Tunisia in the past week has been depressingly familiar for the Middle East: roadside bombs badly wounding soldiers and police as they comb a mountainous region for al-Qaida linked militants.

What’s unusual is that the setting is this largely secularized middle class nation of 10 million.

For now the numbers are small compared to those found in Algeria, Libya, or northern Mali. But recent fighting in the Sahel — the arid region just south of the Sahara Desert — has sent jihadi fighters looking for new havens, raising fears that Tunisia is in their sights.

“We have discovered a terrorist plan targeting Tunisians and the state,” Mohammed Ali Aroui, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said Tuesday, without giving further details. He estimated that there were some 20 militants hiding in the rugged 70 square kilometers (27 square miles) of Jebel Chaambi, near the southern city of Kasserine.

He said that another dozen were at large 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the north, around the town of al-Kef.

The mountain hunt is the culmination of a string of relatively minor incidents with armed groups since Tunisians overthrew the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, kicking off the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring around the region.

Ben Ali’s repressive regime was known for its harsh oppression of all forms of Islamists. After his fall, a once-banned moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, went on to dominate parliamentary elections.

At the same time, prisons were flung open, letting out many militants with connections to violent groups that appear to have restarted their activities. Ennahda is often accused of tolerating these more radicalized militants or not taking them seriously enough.

The retiring head of the United States’ African Command, Gen. Carter Ham, visited Tunisia at the end of March and warned that “it is very clear to me that al-Qaida intends to establish a presence in Tunisia.”

Ben Ali’s secular-minded dictatorship long bred extremist sentiments but most radicals then sought jihad outside the country’s borders, first in Iraq and later in Syria and Mali. Recently, it appears that some Tunisian radicals have decided to do their fighting inside the country — with a failing economy feeding militant views.

Most incidents over the past two years have involved armed groups using Tunisia’s southern desert to pass between Algeria and Libya. But in December the Interior Ministry announced the dissolution of a seven-man cell linked to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the same group that had formed an Islamic emirate in northern Mali in alliance with Tuareg tribesmen.

There were also discoveries of what was described as training camps in the border region with Algeria.

“The terrorists were looking to establish a logistical base to conduct their operations,” announced Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Mokhtar Ben Nasr on Tuesday, adding that in the past week, four bombs made of ammonium nitrate fertilizer had wounded 13 soldiers and police, including two who lost legs and two who lost eyes.

The campaign around Jebel Chaambi, Tunisia’s highest mountain at 1,500 meters (4,900 feet), has transfixed Algeria, which fears that Tunisian violence may start roiling its own shaky security situation.

Since the fall of Ben Ali, there has been a rise not just in moderate Islamist groups but also hardline ultraorthodox Muslims known as salafis, who have railed against what they call the secular elements of a country long known for its progressive attitudes, especially concerning women’s rights.

Critics of the government say these salafi groups, including those advocating violence, have been allowed to run rampant. On Sept. 14, several salafi groups converged on the U.S. Embassy, burning cars and destroying a nearby American school. Seifallah Ben Hassine of the Ansar al-Sharia group, a former denizen of Ben Ali’s jails, has gone into hiding after being linked to the embassy attack.

In February, a leftist politician, Chokri Beliad, was assassinated and the men eventually arrested were described as being linked to salafi groups.

The attacks sent the country’s delicate political transition into turmoil, prompting then-Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali to resign in February and raising fears that the Ennahda-led government was failing not only at the economy but security as well.

“The terrorist threat has moved to a higher level,” Jebali said in a recent interview with the French-language daily La Presse. “The top priority is to launch a decisive campaign to recover all the weapons circulating in the country.”

He added that the country is still in the delicate process of writing a new constitution and holding elections for a new legislature and president, by the end of the year. The process has been riven by angry disputes between Ennahda and the opposition parties, partly over Ennahda’s alleged laxity towards salafis.

“Please don’t add political and social landmines to those already on Jebel Chaambi,” said Jebali, calling for national unity in face of the threat.

Part of the problem is the hundreds of mosques under control of radical preachers that are filling disaffected youth in the impoverished interior with ideas of jihad, whether at home or abroad. A third of the 32 attackers against an Algerian gas facility in January were Tunisian and there are reportedly hundreds fighting in Syria.

Alaya Allani, an expert on North African Islamist movements, estimated that some 500 of 4,000 mosques are outside state control — several times the number the government has acknowledged.

“For now the warning light is orange but it risks turning red if the appropriate measures are not taken,” he said, recommending a national conference of all political parties to forge a common anti-terrorism strategy.

But Riccardo Fabiani, the North Africa analyst of the London-based Eurasia group, said that some of the alarm over the recent attacks has been overblown when taken in a broader regional context.

“If we compare the situation in Tunisia to the rest of the region, particularly Libya and Algeria, it is pretty much under control,” he said, adding that state and foreign interests were not under any significant threat.

He said that part of the problem is how demoralized security forces have been since the fall of Ben Ali, sapping their ability to maintain border security as well as in the past.

“They are countering the problem with limited resources and security forces are downbeat,” he said. “They feel powerless.”

© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Canada: al-Qaida Behind Plot to Blow Up US-Canada Rail Line.

Canadian security forces say they have thwarted an al-Qaida-led plot to blow up a rail line between Canada and the United States, authorities said.

Police in Canada say two men have been arrested and charged with plotting a terrorist attack against a Canadian passenger train.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said Monday that Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser were conspiring to carry out an al-Qaida supported attack against Via Rail, but posed no imminent threat.

The investigation was part of a cross-border operation involving Canadian law enforcement agencies, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The suspects had sought to attack the railroad between Toronto and New York City. Canadian media said the two men had been arrested after raids in Toronto and Montreal, Canada‘s two biggest cities.

A U.S. law enforcement source told Reuters the alleged plot was not linked with last week’s Boston Marathon bombings.

The arrests follow not only the Boston bombings but revelations that Canadians took part in an attack by militants on a gas plant in Algeria in January.

It also recalls the arrests in 2006 of a group of more than a dozen Toronto-area men accused of planning to plant bombs at various Canadian targets. Eleven men were eventually convicted of taking part on the plot.

© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

Al-Qaida Denies Saharan Leader Killed by France.

RIYADH— Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the movement’s North African arm, said French claims that its forces had killed the group’s leader in the Sahara were a “blatant fallacy,” a monitoring website reports.

AQIM, as the group is known, did not name the leader but it appeared to be referring to Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, whose death in Mali in February was confirmed by Paris on March 23.

The militant group, which attacked a gas plant in Algeria in January, denied the death in a statement published on Friday on Islamist internet forums, according to SITE, a U.S.-based intelligence monitoring website.

The statement threatened “dark days” for France in north and west Africa.

French forces launched a ground and air campaign in Mali on Jan. 11 against Islamist forces who carved out an enclave in the country’s northern mountains, saying they posed an international threat.

Paris said in a statement last month: “The president of the French Republic confirms with certainty the death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid after an offensive by the French army.”

However, AQIM said the French statement was motivated by the government’s low poll ratings.

“This is a blatant fallacy by the French President [Francois] Hollande, who has low popularity and whose party is mired in financial and moral scandals, in order to delude the French and global public about the achievement of a field victory that restores to them their lost confidence, domestically and abroad,” it said.

The fate of Abou Zeid and another al-Qaida commander, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, presumed mastermind of the Algerian attack in which more than 60 people were killed, has been murky since Chad, which is fighting alongside France in Mali, reported their deaths in March.

Algerian Ennahar TV, which is well connected with Algeria’s security services, said late last month a new commander, Djamel Okacha, had been named to replace Abou Zeid.

An Algerian security source said Okacha, also known as Yahia Abu El Hamam, joined AQIM in northern Mali in 2004.

However, the AQIM statement monitored by SITE said Hamam had not been installed to replace Abou Zeid, but had in fact replaced another leader, Nabil Abu Alqamah, who it said died in a traffic accident last year.

It said he had been installed “eight months ago, and nearly five months before the French invasion of northern Mali,” according to the monitoring group.

© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

Thousands of Tunisians call for Islamist government to quit.

  • Young women calling for a stop to violence against women, chant slogans and hold pictures of assassinated secular politician Chokri Belaid, as they demonstrate against the government, along Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis March 9, 2013. REUTERS/Anis Mili

    View PhotoReuters/Reuters – Young women calling for a stop to violence against women, chant slogans and hold pictures of assassinated secular politician Chokri Belaid, as they demonstrate against the government, along …more 

By Tarek Amara

Tunis (Reuters) – Thousands of Tunisians took to the streets of the capital Tunis on Saturday to call for an end to an Islamist government they blame for the assassination of a leading secular politician 40 days earlier.

It was the biggest demonstration since Chokri Belaid was gunned down outside his house on February 6, igniting the worst unrest since the Jasmine Revolution that toppled strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and started the Arab Spring.

In a bid to quell the protests, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned and was replaced by Ali Larayedh, a fellow member of the Islamist Ennahda party, who formed a new coalition governmentincluding independents in key ministries.

But protesters on Saturday blamed the ruling party for Belaid’s murder and chanted “Ennahda go,” “The people want a new revolution,” and “The people want to bring down the regime.”

No one has claimed responsibility for the killing, which Belaid’s family blames on Ennahda. The party denies involvement and police say the killer was a radical Salafist Islamist.

Belaid, a left-wing lawyer, was shot at close range outside his Tunis home by an assassin who fled on a motorcycle.

His nine-party Popular Front bloc has only three seats in Tunisia‘s Constituent Assembly, which is acting as parliament and writing a new national charter, compared to some 120 for Ennahda and its partners. But Belaid spoke for many who fear religious radicals are stifling freedoms won in the Arab Spring.

The North African state’s new Islamist-led government won a confidence vote on Wednesday although the death of an unemployed man who set himself on fire underscored popular discontent with high unemployment, inflation and corruption.

“They killed Chokri but they cannot kill the values ​​of freedom defended by him,” Belaid’s widow Basma said in front of her husband’s grave on Saturday.

Tunisia’s transition has been more peaceful than those in Egypt and Libya, and has led to freedom of expression and political pluralism. But tensions run high between liberals and the Islamists who did not play a major role in the revolt but were elected to power.

The government is also pressing ahead with tax rises and subsidy cuts to reduce this year’s projected budget deficit of 6 percent of gross domestic product, despite a storm of public criticism.

Lacking the huge oil and gas resources of neighbours Libya and Algeria, Tunisia’s compact size, relatively skilled workforce and close ties with Europe have raised hopes it can set an example of economic progress for the region. Tourism is a major foreign currency earner.


By Tarek Amara | Reuters

Insight: Islamist inroads in Mali may undo French war on al Qaeda.

  • Malian soldiers patrol in the village of Kadji in this March 1, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Joe Penney/Files

    View PhotoReuters/Reuters – Malian soldiers patrol in the village of Kadji in this March 1, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Joe Penney/Files


  • A boy walks past metal doors and windows on a house in Gao in this February 26, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Joe Penney/FilesView PhotoA boy walks past metal doors and …
  • Radical Islamists arrested by French and Malian authorities in Timbuktu region sit in handcuffs in the military police headquarters in Gao, Mali, in this February 26, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Joe Penney/FilesView PhotoRadical Islamists arrested by French …

By David Lewis

TIMBUKTU, Mali (Reuters) – Residents who slipped into a non-descript mud-brick house after Islamist fighters fled Mali’s desert town of Timbuktu uncovered a trove of arms, ammunition and documents – the workings of the local al Qaeda recruitment office.

“We found lots of IDs, passports and birth certificates,” said El Hadj Garaba, who searched through the house with neighbors before French intelligence officers arrived.

The documents – from Mali, nearby African nations and distant countries like Saudi Arabia and Britain – suggest the Islamist groupsused their 10-month occupation of northern Mali to stretch their tentacles across West Africa and beyond.

Their recruitment drive suggests the French-led war against al Qaeda and its allies could drag on long after France starts withdrawing from Mali next month, spilling across borders and destabilizing the broader region as Islamist groups fragment.

Two months in, the offensive has wrested northern Mali from Islamist occupation, killed scores of fighters and driven survivors into mountain caves and desert hideaways stockpiled with arms and supplies.

But the documents – alongside interviews with residents of liberated towns – show that Islamist ranks, previously dominated by North Africans led by veterans of Algeria’s civil war, have been swelled by hundreds of fighters from Mali and neighboring countries – brought together by opportunity as well as ideology.

Garaba listed Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria amongst nationalities represented. “But there were lots from Mali – including from the south,” he added, picking through a courtyard still scattered with ammunition cases but now occupied by goats.

When France launched airstrikes in Mali on January 11, it billed its dramatic intervention as a bid to prevent Islamists seizing control of the whole of the landlocked nation of 16 million people and using it as a base to launch attacks on neighboring African countries and the West.

The French-led campaign has dealt the Islamists a heavy blow, killing many of their leaders. The reported death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, one al Qaeda’s top regional commanders, in the Amettetai Valley would be a major scalp, if confirmed.

But the risk remains of the Islamists, particularly their new West African recruits, melting away into neighboring countries and regrouping once offensive operations ease up.

“Abou Zeid’s death will decapitate them but they’ll find new leaders,” an ex-senior Malian intelligence official said. “Their ideas have spread. They’ll probably split into smaller factions.”


Algerian-born Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, another top Islamist whose death was claimed but not confirmed, led the two southern units of al Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM.

Operating across the Sahara, south of the main body of fighters in Algeria, their bands found wealth and notoriety by kidnapping Westerners for ransom and exploiting smuggling networks criss-crossing the vast stretches of desert dunes.

In the process of exchanging goods and services with remote Malian communities abandoned by the state, they forged personal and ideological ties that would prove crucial to their takeover of the country’s desert north – an area the size of Texas.

“What you had was a slow indoctrination of their beliefs. It wasn’t just a 10-month brainwashing — it had been going on for years,” said Rudy Atallah, a former senior U.S. counter terrorism official focused on Africa. “It wasn’t the bulk of the population but they reached out to some people, no doubt.”

Fighting alongside and then hijacking a Tuareg separatist rebellion launched early last year, the Islamists stitched together a patchwork of groups mixing ideology and criminality that then carved up northern Mali.

France’s liberation of Timbuktu and Gao in late January was greeted with jubilation by flag-waving residents, who had been forced to endure months of strict sharia Islamic law, including whippings and amputations of limbs for certain crimes.

Residents are now enthusiastically helping security forces identify fighters and collaborators. But elders in Timbuktu and Gao paint a more complex picture of life under the Islamists.

Arab communities in both towns, who had a history of collaborating with AQIM, helped to engineer the Islamist takeover and backed the occupation, partly in order to protect their own interests.

When Islamists seized power, sidelining the unpopular and ill-disciplined Tuareg separatists who had looted and pillaged, they also enjoyed a degree of popularity with the broader black African population that channeled in recruits.

Abdelmalek Droukdel, the Algerian emir of AQIM, urged his fighters last year to integrate with local tribes and cautioned against imposing sharia too abruptly. For a while, it seems, they followed his advice.

Mahamane Qoye Tandina, a senior member of Timbuktu’s crisis committee that met regularly with Abou Zeid, said Islamists successfully played on conservative strains in society.

“Some people appreciated that they wanted to change girls’ behavior and cut back on alcohol and tobacco,” he said. “But when they started to chop off hands, they went too far.”

In Gao, Soumeylou Maiga, head of programming at Radio Aadar Koima, said the Islamists tricked residents, promising to replace a distant government that had abandoned them and to respect their moderate form of Islam.

“This helped them get recruits. They went to the madarassas and recruited people without jobs. They took aid and got recruits in return,” he added. “For some it was about religion. For others, it was about the money.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch documented the recruitment of hundreds of children in the Gao and Timbuktu region.

A young recruit could earn about $300 per month, residents said, a huge sum for the desert north’s stagnant economy.

In both towns, Islamists made locals the face of the occupation — though foreign fighters retained leadership.

In Timbuktu, it was Sandou Ould Boumana, a Malian Arab from the trading town. Although an established member of AQIM, he spoke in the name of Ansar Dine, a Malian Islamist group.

In Gao, Aliou Toure, a Songhai, went from trading animal skins in the towns market to head the feared Islamic police.


One of the starkest changes was the rise of MUJWA, whose name – the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa – reflected its aim of breaking with AQIM leadership dominated by veterans of the Algerian civil war.

The mix of black Africans from Mali and neighboring countries recruited in the MUJWA’s fiefdom of Gao pointed to a degree of success.

A Malian intelligence officer said Islamists’ identity cards seized in Gao came from countries including Togo, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Niger.

Seid Abdoulaye Toure, a senior local imam in Gao, said the MUJWA cleverly targeted the region’s poor who had been exposed to some Islamic education in Koranic schools but lacked the ability to question the form of Islam being imposed.

“The reality of the problem is here. We should not look too far,” he said.

Many in Gao look just across slow-moving, brown waters of the Niger River to a small town called Kadji.

The village contains one of the pockets of ultra conservative Wahhabist Islam that have existed in Mali for decades, fed by an influx of foreign preachers.

“All the youth from there were with MUJWA,” said Zouhairou Kowa, a Kadji resident, referring to the Dar es Salaam neighborhood. “They took them into the hills, they trained them and they came back.”


Before the offensive, which Paris says has killed hundreds of rebels, it was estimated there were 2,500-3,000 Islamist fighters in Mali. The U.S. military estimated 800-1,200 of these were hardcore jihadist.

Prisoners captured during the French-led offensive highlight the increasingly broad make-up of the Islamist ranks. A Reuters reporter travelling with Chadian forces in Tessalit earlier this month saw eight captured Islamist fighters from Morocco, Tunisia, Burkina Faso and Nigeria.

For years, intelligence sources have said militants from Nigeria’s Boko Haram have linked up with Islamists in Mali for training, though the group has remained largely focused on its fight to impose sharia law in northern Nigeria.

In recent weeks, however, Boko Haram statements point to some factions becoming more ideologically aligned with international jihadists.

Gunmen claiming to be from Boko Haram cited France’s military offensive in Mali as justification for their kidnapping of a French family of seven in Cameroon last month.

Ansaru, a Boko Haram splinter group which said it executed 7 hostages last weekend, has also directly allied itself with international jihad.

January’s mass hostage taking at Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant, masterminded by Belmokhtar, showed the ease with which militants can glide across regional borders.

Andrew Lebovich, a Sahel analyst, said the make-up of Belmokhtar’s group and the routes used in the attack pointed to cooperation between militants in Mali and Libya.

This challenges the perception of Mali’s conflict as principally threatening the Sahel – a 5,400-km band running east-west across Africa, south of the Sahara desert.

Islamist activities fanning north and south from Mali to Nigeria, Algeria and Libya have raised concern among British officials. “We don’t see it as a threat to London or Birmingham but we have a lot of interests in that region,” said one.

For now, France and its African allies are still finding out if the Islamists’ new recruits and foreign links will allow them to survive the unprecedented offensive on their positions.

“Will they have had the time to become hardliners? I don’t know,” said one senior West African official, who has had direct contact with the armed groups in recent years.

For now, the battle appears far from over.

“If the Islamists are able to keep moving, hiding, it will be endless war – like Afghanistan,” said one Western security official with years of experience in the region.

(Additional reporting by Joe Penney and Emmanuel Braun in Gao, Madjiasra Nako in Tessalit; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Anna Willard)


By David Lewis | Reuters

Algeria’s security forces to protect energy plants.

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — An Algerian official says that the country’s security forces will take over the job of securing the country’s oil and gas sites following a spectacular terrorist attack and mass hostage-taking on a gas installation in January.

An inquiry into the Ain Amenas plant assault blasted private companies currently responsible for site security in Algeria’s energy sectors for failing to prevent it, according to an Interior Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The official said the inquiry found that the site’s infrastructure “was not capable of either preventing this terrorist attack and even less so repelling it.”

In all, 37 hostages, including an Algerian security guard, and 29 attackers were killed in a four-day standoff.


By AOMAR OUALI | Associated Press

Algeria reels from tales of oil sector corruption.

  • FILE - This Jan. 31, 2013, file photo shows Algerian soldiers standing guard during a visit for news media organized by the Algerian authorities at the gas plant in Ain Amenas, seen on background. New corruption scandals are shining a fresh spotlight on Sonatrach, which jointly with BP and Norway’s Statoil runs the desert gas plant that was the scene of a bloody hostage standoff last month. (AP Photo/File)

    View PhotoAssociated Press/File – FILE – This Jan. 31, 2013, file photo shows Algerian soldiers standing guard during a visit for news media organized by the Algerian authorities at the gas plant in Ain Amenas, seen …more 


  • FILE - This Jan. 31, 2013, file photo shows a part of the gas plant in Ain Amenas seen during a visit for news media organized by the Algerian authorities. New corruption scandals are shining a fresh spotlight on Sonatrach, which jointly with BP and Norway’s Statoil runs the desert gas plant that was the scene of a bloody hostage standoff last month. (AP Photo/File)View PhotoFILE – This Jan. 31, 2013, file …

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Corrupt and gorging itself at the trough of Algeria’s vast oil wealth — that’s how most Algerians privately view the elites running the country. Yet few have been willing to say so publicly, until now.

New corruption scandals are shining a new spotlight on state oil company Sonatrach, which jointly with BP and Norway’s Statoil runs the desert gas plant that was the scene of a bloody hostage standoff in January.

A recent anguished public plea by a former Sonatrach official shocked Algerians and raised hopes that the leadership will try to clean up the oil and gas sector in Africa’s largest country.

There’s plenty at stake: Algeria is also one of the continent’s richest countries, as the No. 3 supplier of natural gas to Europe, with $190 billion in reserves, up $8 billion in the last year alone.

The Feb. 18 letter by former Sonatrach vice president Hocine Malti in the French-language Algerian daily El Watan broke the silence around the company. Addressing the shadowy leader of Algeria’s intelligence service, it asks if he is really serious about investigating new bribery scandals involving Sonatrach and Italian and Canadian companies.

When Italian prosecutors in January announced an investigation into oil company ENI and subsidiary SAIPEM for allegedly paying €197 million ($256.1 million) in bribes to secure an €11 billion contract with Sonatrach, it provoked a firestorm in the Algerian media, until the North African country‘s justice system finally announced its own inquiry Feb. 10.

Malti, author of the “Secret History of Algerian Oil,” scoffed that Algerian authorities were only following the lead of international investigators and wondered if Mohammed “Tewfik” Mediene, the feared head of the Department of Research and Security, would allow the real sources of corruptionto be tried in court.

“Is it too much to dream that some of your fellow generals, certain ministers or corrupt businessmen — members of the pyramid that you are on top of — members of this fraternity, might also end up in front of justice?” he asked in the letter. “Or will it be like always, just the small fry are targeted by this new investigation?”

“Will we have to continue to listen for news from the Milan prosecutor to know the sad reality of our country, to discover how certain people, whom you know quite well, people you have come across in your long professional career, have gorged themselves on millions of dollars and euros of the country’s oil revenues?” he added.

The response to the letter was swift. Energy Minister Youcef Yousfi promised that once an investigation was complete “we will take all necessary measures” against those harming the interests of the nation.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who rarely appears in public, said in a written statement, “these revelations provoke our disgust and condemnation, but I trust the justice system of our country to bring clarity to the web of accusations and discover who is responsible.”

Malti told The Associated Press by telephone from his home in France that he wrote the letter partly out of anger that Algeria had to rely on foreign prosecutors to reveal the extent of its own corruption and addressed it to the head of intelligence to shock people.

“It made a lot of noise because with this letter, I broke a taboo,” he said. “The head of the DRS is an unapproachable figure in Algeria, at times we can’t even pronounce (say) his name.”

It is not the first time the state-owned hydrocarbon company, which provides Algeria with 97 percent of its hard currency earnings, has been enmeshed in scandal.

In 2010, its head, three of its vice presidents and the minister of energy were all fired in a corruption investigation run by Mediene’s intelligence agency.

However, rather than restore faith in the country’s corruption-fighting mechanism, the 2010 purge was widely seen as a chance to settle scores between the DRS and Bouteflika, since most of those fired were his close associates.

Algeria ranks 105 out of 176 in Transparency International’s 2012 corruption index, and the occasional corruption investigation often just seems to be how the elites settle their scores, such as a string of revelations about prominent politicians in November, which observers said were linked to next year’s presidential elections.

“I realize that people might be shocked by what is happening at Sonatrach — these scandals are terrible and we condemn them as individual acts,” Sonatrach head Abdelhamid Zerguine said on the radio Sunday, the anniversary of Algeria’s 1971 nationalization of its oil industry from the French. He promised to fight further corruption “with utmost vigor,” even while denying it was systemic.

The scale of the scandals is staggering. Nearly €200 million ($260 million) was paid out by the Italians, according to the Milan prosecutor. ENI has pledged full cooperation with prosecutors in their investigations.

Meanwhile, according to a joint investigation by Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper and an Italian business paper published Feb. 22, Canadian company SNC-Lavalin paid a series of bribes of its own to secure a $1 billion engineering contract. Company spokeswoman Lilly Nguyen responded to queries about the case saying “to the best of our knowledge, SNC-Lavalin is not specifically under investigation in the Sonatrach matter.”

With commissions on deals like this going to the highest levels of power, the Algerian press rarely reports about it — until the subject is broached by the foreign media.

Malti, who was there at the founding of Sonatrach in 1963, estimated that the country was losing between $3 and 6 billion annually to corruption in the oil sector alone.

“If a judge says that an inquiry has opened or even a minister promises to take measures against ‘people working against Algeria’s interests,’ I don’t believe them,” Mohammed Saidj, a professor of international relations at Algiers University, told the AP. “It’s just words to appease a public opinion shocked when it hears about the corruption and billions of dollars stolen by high-level political and military officials, including those close to the president.”

The chances of this situation changing are dim, considering how much the country relies on a single company.

In a chapter on Sonatrach in the 2012 book “Oil and Governance,” John Entelis, an Algeria expert at New York’s Fordham University, described the importance of a company established just a year after Algeria won its independence from France, and wrote, “Algeria’s governing elite rely upon Sonatrachfor revenue from which they gain power, patronage, and privileges.”

Entelis told AP that the letter in El Watan shows that Algerians are increasingly able to complain about this system, even if that won’t necessarily change things.

“This is the heart of the Algerian political system — Sonatrach, the DRS, civil society in the form of … willingness to make these things public. Some say this is what enables it to maintain itself instead of collapse,” he said.


Paul Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco. Associated Press writer Karim Kebir contributed to this report from Algiers, Algeria.


By AOMAR OUALI and PAUL SCHEMM | Associated Press

Chad says al Qaeda commander killed in Mali, France cautious.

  • French military releases footage of troops in action in MaliReuters Videos  0:45French military communications releases video showing their soldiers fighting in the Adra des Ifoghas …


N’DJAMENA/GAO, Mali (Reuters) – One of al Qaeda’s most feared commanders in Africa, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, has been killed by Chadian forces in northern Mali, Chad‘s President Idriss Deby said on Friday.

French officials said they could not confirm the report.

“It was Chadian forces who killed two jihadi leaders, including Abou Zeid,” Deby told opposition politicians in the presence of journalists after a funeral ceremony for Chadian soldiers killed in fighting at the weekend.

Chadian soldiers with support from French special forces and fighter jets are hunting down pockets of al Qaeda-linked insurgents in the border region with Algeria after a seven-week French-led campaign broke Islamist domination of northern Mali.

The death of Abou Zeid, who has earned AQIM tens of millions of dollars with a spate of kidnappings of Westerners in the Sahara over the last five years, would be a significant but far from fatal blow to the group.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed mastermind of a mass hostage-taking at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria last month, remains at large. So does Tuareg Islamist leader Iyad ag Ghali, who was this week placed on the U.S. global terrorist list.

Sources close to Islamist militants and tribal elders had earlier said Abou Zeid, blamed for kidnapping at least 20 Westerners in the Sahara, was among 40 militants killed within the past few days in the foothills of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.

Algeria’s Ennahar television, which is well connected with Algerian security services, had reported his death on Thursday but there was no official confirmation.

A former smuggler turned jihadi, Algerian-born Abou Zeid is regarded as one of the most ruthless operators of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He is believed to have executed British hostage Edwin Dyer in 2009 and 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau in 2010.

A trusted lieutenant of AQIM’s leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, Abou Zeid imposed a violent form of sharia law during Islamist domination of the ancient desert town of Timbuktu, including amputations and the destruction of ancient Sufi shrines.

“The death of Abou Zeid has been confirmed by several of his supporters who have come back from the mountains,” said Ibrahim Oumar Toure, a mechanic in the northern Malian town of Kidal who worked with Islamist rebels and remains in contact with them.

Members of the MNLA Tuareg rebel group, who have been acting as scouts for French and Chadian forces, said Islamist prisoners seized during the fighting confirmed Abou Zeid and another militant leader had been killed.

However, French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said she could neither confirm nor deny the report, and French officials urged caution. An official MNLA spokesman said the group had no evidence to prove he was dead.

French radio RFI and Algerian daily El Khabar reported that DNA tests were being conducted on members of Abou Zeid’s family to confirm whether a body recovered by French troops after fighting in Adrar des Ifoghas was indeed the Islamist leader.


In a speech on Friday, French President Francois Hollande said the operation in Mali was in its final stage and he was not obliged to confirm Abou Zeid’s death.

“Terrorist groups have taken refuge and are hiding in an especially difficult zone,” he said. “Information is out there. I don’t have to confirm it because we must reach the end of the operation.”

A U.S. official and a Western diplomat, however, said the reports appeared to be credible.

According to local sources in Kidal, MNLA Tuareg rebels, who are working with French forces, had located Abou Zeid’s fighters and handed over the coordinates for French jets to strike.

“They were hidden in mountain caves and were building bombs for suicide attacks when they were killed,” Toure said.

Abou Zeid’s death will be of particular interest to the French government as he is believed to be holding at least four French citizens kidnapped from Niger in 2010.

After its success in dislodging al Qaeda fighters from northern Mali’s towns, France and its African allies have faced a mounting wave of suicide bombings and guerrilla-style raids by Islamists in northern Malian towns.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in Geneva on Friday that a U.N. peacekeeping force to replace French troops in Mali should be discussed as soon as possible.

(Reporting By Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Lamine Chikhi in Algiers and John Irish and David Lewis in Dakar; Writing by John Irish and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Michael Roddy)


By Madjiasra Nako and Cheick Diouara | Reuters

Chadians attack Islamists’ Mali mountain hideout.

N’DJAMENA (Reuters) – Chadian troops attacked an Islamist base in northern Mali on Saturday in heavy fighting which France called part of the final campaign to drive al Qaeda from its mountain hideouts.

Thirteen Chadian soldiers and 65 al Qaeda-linked rebels were killed on Friday in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border, where French special forces are also hunting Islamist bases, Chadian military sources said.

A senior Chadian military source said on Saturday his country’s heaviest losses during the international offensive in Mali centred around a rebel base that appeared to be of “significant importance” as the militants were not fleeing.

The violence underscores the risk French and African forces become entangled in guerrilla war as they help Mali’s weak army.

French troops were also fighting in the Adrar area, French President Francois Hollande told a news conference, in what he called a “last phase” of the campaign begun when Paris sent troops to Mali last month to stop a southward push by Islamist rebels who seized control of the north last April.

“These battles will continue,” Hollande said on Saturday. “It is the last phase because it is most likely that AQIM’s (al-Qaeda’s north African arm)forces are hiding there.”

Troops from neighboring African nations – including 2,000 Chadians – have deployed to Mali and are meant to take over leadership of the operation when France begins to withdraw forces from its former West African colony next month.

Five people, including two Islamists, were also killed in In Khalil – a town bordering Algeria 1,700 km (1,000 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako – on Friday in car bomb attacks on Tuareg MNLA rebels with French links, an MNLA spokesman said.

The pro-autonomy MNLA rebels are helping the French to fight al Qaeda and its allies. It was the MNLA’s defeat of Mali’s army last year that triggered a coup in Bamako and sparked chaos allowing the Islamists to launch their own campaign.

The Tuareg fighters’ Paris-based spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid said on Saturday the MNLA came under heavy machine gun fire from “terrorist” groups in In Khalil, most likely Islamists.

France 24 television reported local Arab groups said they had launched attacks against the Tuareg MLNA rebels.

It is hard for Reuters to verify such reports from Mali’s extreme north because of restrictions on media travelling there.

After driving insurgents from northern towns such as Gao and Timbuktu, France and African allies have focused on the remote northeast mountains and desert – an area the size of France – that includes networks of caves, passes and porous borders.

They believe some of eight French hostages held by al Qaeda-linked groups are being kept in the area.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday he deployed about 100 troops to neighbouring Niger for unmanned reconnaissance flights over Mali to share intelligence with French forces.

Paris has said it plans to start withdrawing some of its 4,000 troops from Mali next month. But rebels have fought back against Mali’s weak and divided army, and African forces due to take over the French role are not yet in place.

A Malian military source said on Saturday they had recovered 23 Islamist bodies from Gao, where French and Malian troops fought Islamists on the streets earlier in the week.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Dakar and Pascal Fletcher in Bamako; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Jason Webb)


By Madjiasra Nako | Reuters

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