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Algeria to free 2,629 Islamists under amnesty

Written by: Staff

ALGIERS, March 5 (Reuters) Algeria will complete the release this week under an amnesty of 2,629 Islamists jailed during civil strife that lasted more than a decade, the justice Minister was quoted as saying today.

Tayeb Belaiz told the government newspaper El Moudjahid that 150 former rebels walked free from prisons across the country in a first batch of releases on Saturday as part of a drive to promote peace and national reconciliation.

The amnesty approved by the government on Feb. 21 also gave Islamic guerrillas fighting the authorities six months to surrender and receive a pardon provided they were not responsible for massacres, rapes and bombings of public places.

Officials estimate about 1,000 guerrillas are still active in the oil-exporting nation, most of them members of the radical Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).

The group is on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organisations and is believed to have links with al Qaeda.

OPEC-Member Algeria plunged into brutal civil strife early in 1992 after the then military-backed authorities scrapped a parliamentary election that radical Islamists were poised to win.

The violence claimed around 150,000 lives and 20 billion dollars in economic losses due to a sabotage campaign by Islamic rebels.

Thousands of Islamic guerrillas have given themselves up since a partial amnesty in January 2000. The last prisoner releases were in 1999.

The new amnesty offers compensation for victims of the conflict and families of disappeared people as well as aid for families of rebels killed in the fighting.

It also provides compensation for people who lost their jobs because they were believed to be associated with militancy.

Under the pardon the military would be protected from prosecution for alleged human rights abuses.

Human rights groups and families say many of the thousands of people who disappeared were abducted by the security forces.

Government officials say many of the disappeared joined the guerrillas.

A national committee was due to be set up at the justice ministry on Sunday to ensure the implementation of the amnesty, Belaiz said.

Reuters CH DB2115

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