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America and This Key N. African State

Fearing that an Algeria of Islamic extremists could become an international base for terrorists, both France, Algeria's old colonial master, and the United States have reluctantly sided with the government.

In the long term, the West may also have economic reasons for overlooking the tactics of an authoritarian military regime that, if undesirable, at least affords some stability.

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Algeria has topped the list for most new oil finds two years in a row, according to the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit publication. It sits on vast, untapped reserves and has long been one of the biggest exporters of natural gas.

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have accused the world of turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed by Algerian security forces for fear of playing into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists.

Thousands of Algerian men, accused of supporting the fundamentalists, have disappeared into the tangled prison system.

"All we want to know is if they're alive or dead," says Habara Bourayou, showing a faded Polaroid of her son, Abdelatif, who was arrested two years ago by security forces in Baraki El Merdja, a poverty-stricken suburb of the capital, Algiers.

Few such cases of missing persons are ever resolved.

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