The last of Algeria’s Islamist insurgents will either surrender or be killed within a year to 18 months, the official overseeing a programme to persuade fighters to give themselves up said.
Algerian officials have in the past predicted an end to the insurgency which has caused instability in the oil and gas exporting country for over 15 years but have never previously issued such a precise timetable.
Farouk Ksentini, Chairman of Algeria’s National Consultative Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, said his contacts with ex-fighters who have surrendered indicated the remaining insurgents were deeply demoralised.
“This is why I think things are going to come to a definitive conclusion very soon,” Ksentini told Reuters in an interview.
“In my opinion (that will take) one year or 18 months at the most, I am talking about the surrender, and, I don’t like this word but we have to use it, the extermination of terrorism.”
The insurgents in Algeria are operating under the banner of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Their leader, Abdelmalek Droudkel, has said repeatedly that his group will not surrender and will continue its “jihad” or “holy war”.
The last major insurgent attack in Algeria was in late July, when gunmen killed 14 soldiers in an ambush. But since then the security situation has been unusually calm, with only a handful of minor attacks.
Algeria, a North African nation of 35 million people, descended into violence in 1992 when the military-backed government cancelled a legislative election that Islamists were poised to win.
The fighting killed 200 000 people, according to estimates from international non-governmental groups.
Rebel fighters “demobilising”
In the past few years the violence has subsided dramatically as security forces established greater control and some insurgents accepted immunity from prosecution in exchange for laying down their arms.
Ksentini acts as an intermediary between the government and militants seeking to surrender under the amnesty scheme. While he has close ties to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, former insurgents have told Reuters they respect him.
He said 7000 fighters had taken up the amnesty offer since 1999, leaving not more than 400 insurgents still active.
“There is a marked tendency at the moment towards their demobilisation because they are demoralised,” he said.
“They know very well that the population has dropped them and they no longer have the popular logistical (support) that they benefited from at the beginning.”
He said he had not been briefed on any negotiations the government might be conducting to secure the surrender of al Qaeda leaders in Algeria.
But he added: “That would not surprise me because that is the way these things happen. We should never stop exploring all possible routes.”
Ksentini said a final end to the violence would allow Algeria’s government to switch its focus from the problems of security to pressing social and economic challenges that were neglected during the conflict.
Algeria has high levels of unemployment, a chronic housing shortage and is vulnerable to fluctuations on the oil market because oil and gas account for 97 % of its exports.
“We no longer have the right to waste our time, money and energy on fighting terrorism and focusing on security issues. We must focus now on economic development,” he said.