Uncovering Algeria’s civil war

A French investigation into the deaths of seven monks is challenging the historic narrative on the war

Published on AlJazeera, by Yasmine Ryan, 12 Nov. 2010.

Challenging the dominant narrative on Algeria’s brutal civil war has never been an easy task. But an investigation into the killing of seven French monks in the midst of the conflict is providing a rare opportunity to dig further into the allegations that the country’s secret services deliberately fostered the descent into violence. 

Brothers Christian, Luc, Christophe, Michel, Célestin, Paul and Bruno were kidnapped by a group of armed men from their Cistercian monastery in Tibéhirine, Algeria on the night of March 26-27, 1996. Two months later, they were dead. Only their heads were ever found.

There are three theories on the prickly question of who was behind the killings.

The line from both the French and Algerian authorities is that the Armed Islamist Group (GIA), a group behind many of the most violent acts of the 1990s, beheaded them in an act of reprisal against the French for not conceding to their demands.

A second theory gained traction in 2009, after François Buchwalter, a retired French general, went public with his damning version of events: that the Algerian military killed the Tibéhirine monks in error during a raid on the kidnappers’ camp.

They tried to make it look as if the GIA was responsible for the deaths by getting rid of the bodies, which were ridden with bullets of too high a calibre to have come from the insurgents. The French authorities, Buchwalter alleges, were complicit in covering this up.

The third theory is that while the GIA did indeed take the monks hostage and they were killed by the Algerian military, the GIA was a tool created by the Algerian secret services to turn opinion – both in Algeria and among its Western allies – against political Islam.

The GIA made two statements about the hostage taking, both written in the name of Djamel Zitouni, the then emir of the group. The second one claimed responsibility for the deaths.

But Buchwalter’s testimony that the monks were killed by an Algerian army M124 helicopter raises a troubling question: why would Zitouni have claimed responsibility for the killings if the military was behind them, unless he was really an agent for the secret services, as has previously been alleged?

Now this last theory is being investigated before France’s judicial authorities and the evidence being uncovered has implications that could change the historic narrative on Algeria’s civil war as a whole.

Questioning the dirty war: … //

… More questions than answers:

Rondot testified before Trévidic on September 29, 2010. While he did not change his position on any of the key points, Baudouin says there were many questions the retired general was unable to answer.

Asked what he knew about the monks’ remains, for instance, Rondot denied any knowledge of the circumstances in which the Algerian authorities handed over the heads. “He gave very evasive responses, which is a little dubious. In every other matter, he was very well-informed,” Baudouin said.

Equally revealing were comments in Rondot’s daily diaries, which show that the agent has continued to “handle” the case, years after the events of 1996. Concerning the present legal inquiry, Rondot wrote in 2004 that he and the director of the DST had met with Judge Bruguière. “It’s necessary to supervise the judge,” he wrote in his diary.

He defended his comments to Trévidic, saying the word “supervise” should not be taken literally. For Baudouin, however, Rondot chose his words deliberately.

“To ’supervise the judge’ obviously has a particular meaning which implies that the services, with Rondot as their interlocutor, weren’t going to allow the legal system investigate the affair too closely or in too much detail,” the lawyer said.

The path ahead:

The question of why no autopsy was performed is another sticking point Baudouin plans to investigate further.

Following Rondot’s testimony, Judge Trévidic has requested the declassification of a second round of documents. The civil party is seeking further faxes between Rondot and his superiors in the DST, as well as any written communication the agent might have had with Lamari.

While the Algerian authorities are currently unwilling to co-operate with the investigation, he is hopeful that changing power structures in Algeria might one day allow this. He points to cryptic comments which Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the Algerian president, made in 2004 to the French television chain LCI.

“Not every truth can be said warm. We’ve just come out of a civil war and when I know the truth, I will inform you,” the president said.

Baudouin said: “The more we gather this kind of element, the harder it will be for the Algerian authorities not to speak out one day.” (full long text).

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