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Hijacking Rescue Reveals The Split in French Policy


THE most enduring legacy of France's dramatic ending to the hijacking of an airliner by Islamic terrorists Dec. 26 could be to reopen a debate over how to restore democracy in its former colony of Algeria.

The French government's determination to take control of the crisis from the Algerian government - by demanding the hijacked Air France airliner be allow to fly to Marseille from Algiers - points to the two sides of a lingering French debate over policy toward the Islamic threat to the Paris-backed regime in Algeria.

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Four hijackers - members of the Armed Islamic Group were slain in the rescue attempt at Marseille, but all 171 passengers and crew members were liberated, despite earlier reports that the pilot and co-pilot had been killed.

A French news agency said on Dec. 26 it received a claim of responsibility for the Dec. 24 Algiers hijacking from the Armed Islamic Group's ``Phalange of the Signers in Blood.'' It said the action was a response to France's ``unconditional aid'' to the Algerian regime.

The French prime minister was quick to take personal responsibility for the decision to use force. ``The minister of the interior asked me, and I decided to use force,'' the prime minister said.

Officially, the affair was managed by a crisis team under the direction of the French Foreign Ministry. But Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, who appeared with the prime minister to announce results of the rescue, described his own ``super-crisis team'' meeting within the Interior Ministry.

The two ministries have represented two opposing sides in French policy toward Algeria since the Algerian government canceled elections in 1991 that Islamic groups appeared likely to win.

The French Foreign Ministry has emphasized a push for political dialogue in Algeria to restore a democratic government; the Interior Ministry advocated the need for internal security and support for the Algerian military in a bid to crush the Islamist insurgency.

Security concerns dominated French policy discussions immediately after the rescue. Air and sea links to Algeria were temporarily suspended. On Dec. 27, the prime minister convened key ministers to discuss measures to ensure transport security. In addition, Interior Ministry spokesmen promised stepped up vigilance to avoid terrorist incidents within French borders.

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The morning after the French commando rescue mission, four Roman Catholic priests, including three Frenchmen, were shot to death in Algeria, in what may be retaliation for the killing of the hijackers.

The longer-term consequence of the hijacking incident could be to strengthen calls for a political dialogue between the Algerian government and opposition groups that are calling for its overthrow.

Tensions between the French and Algerian governments were evident in the first hours of the crisis. Algerian officials refused to grant French authorities contact with the airliner, and appeared prepared to launch their own rescue attempt. They yielded to French demands to allow the plane to fly to France only after a French passenger was murdered.

``In the drama surrounding this affair, it's clear that tensions would appear,'' said a Foreign Ministry spokesman on Dec. 27. ``We had to make clear to the Algerian authorities our determination that the plane leave Algiers for France. We were convinced that we were better able to intervene at a French airport.''

That decision, however, sent a clear signal to Algeria's military-backed government that its strongest international supporter had no confidence in its ability to manage the crisis.

``The French government had responsibility for the crisis transferred to Paris,'' says Bassma Kodani-Darwish, who follows Algerian affairs for the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations. ``The French effectively said to the Algerian government, `You can't solve problems within your own borders.' This discredited the Algerian government; it signaled failure and increased dependence on France. It should give Paris more leverage in pushing for dialogue with the Islamists.''

A discredited government in Algeria could undermine support for those in France urging support of the existing regime, she adds. ``The minister of the interior gained prestige from this incident, but that doesn't mean that the political line Mr. Pasqua defends is reinforced.''

On Sunday, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told the French television station TF-1 audience that: ``We are not supporting this or that regime in Algeria, and I must insist on this point. Our only interest in Algeria is democracy, and when I speak of democracy, I address fanatics of FIS [the Islamic Salvation Front] who violate it as well as those who see total repression or total security as the only solution to the drama Algeria is living through.''

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