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Algerian Voters Overwhelmingly Approve Peace Plan

30 September 2005

Algerian officials say voters gave a resounding "yes" to the president's peace charter, which proposes sweeping amnesties for many of the Islamist insurgents in Algeria's 13-year-old civil war.

Algeria's interior minister says more than 97 percent of voters said "yes" to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation.

He also said turnout was high for Thursday's referendum, with nearly 80 percent of Algeria's 18 million eligible voters casting ballots.

The president's plan offers judicial amnesty to Islamist rebels who lay down their weapons, and to people convicted or accused of supporting terrorism.

The amnesty does not extend to anyone who carried out massacres, rapes or bomb attacks on public places.

The peace charter also provides for reparations to families of the thousands of Algerians whose loved ones disappeared during the 13-year war. Human rights groups and victims' families have blamed many of those disappearances on Algerian security forces, saying they rounded up anyone suspected of ties to the insurgency.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, and opposition parties have criticized the president's new peace charter, saying it essentially grants impunity to security forces accused of abuses.

Algeria's brutal civil war erupted in 1992, after the army canceled a second round of parliamentary elections when it became clear that the Islamic Salvation Front was about to win. The group is now banned, and the peace charter also bars its former leaders from political activity.

At least 120,000 people are believed to have been killed during the conflict, mainly civilians. About 6,000 are estimated to have disappeared.

Most of the Islamist rebels took advantage of earlier amnesties in 1995 and 1999, but the government says there are between 800 and 1,000 insurgents still fighting. Most of them belong to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which pledged loyalty to al-Qaida in 2003.

President Bouteflika, who was re-elected for a second term last year by a landslide, has touted his peace charter as a vehicle for national reconciliation, hoping it will coax the last insurgents out of the mountains and finally end the war.

Human rights groups have voiced skepticism about the government's high turnout figures in Thursday's referendum, saying many polling stations were half empty.

Voter turnout in some of the regions hardest hit by the insurgency was reported to be around 95 percent. But turnout was much lower in areas populated by the country's Berber minority, amid calls for a boycott.

Algerian Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni defended the way the referendum was conducted. He said the overwhelming "yes" vote is a sign of Algerians' desire to live in peace and move forward, leaving the bloody conflict in the past.

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