Sarkozy wants 'truth' on massacre of French monks

8th July 2009, Comments 0 comments

President Nicolas Sarkozy is determined to find out who was really behind the 1996 abduction and beheading of seven French monks.

Paris – President Nicolas Sarkozy said Tuesday he was determined to find out who was really behind the 1996 abduction and beheading of seven French monks in Algeria, which has been blamed on Islamists.

"I want the truth. Relations between major countries are based on the truth and not on lies," he said, adding that he would release any classified documents on the killings which investigators might ask for.

The move came a day after potentially explosive allegations that the Algerian army killed the monks by mistake when it raided an Islamist camp and that the French state covered up the blunder to protect bilateral relations.

Critics have long been suspicious of the official Algerian and French versions that the Trappist monks were killed by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) at the height of a decade of violence that left more than 150,000 people dead.

The Algerian government has repeatedly been accused of exploiting extremist violence -- and even staging gruesome attacks and blaming them on extremists -- during the conflict to try to turn the population against the Islamists.

It denies such accusations.

The Paris prosecutor's office opened an inquiry in 2004 into the massacre of the monks after a civil suit was filed by the family of one of the men and by a senior member of the monks' order.

Patrick Baudouin, lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Monday the latest allegations were proof there was an attempt at "a cover-up on the part of the Algerian authorities and certainly on the part of the French authorities".

His comment came after a source close to the probe leaked remarks allegedly made to French investigators last month by General Francois Buchwalter, who in 1996 was France's military attache in Algiers.

The now-retired general said Algerian army helicopters, hunting Islamist rebels, opened fire on a camp they spotted in the mountains near the monks' hilltop monastery in Tibehirine, 70 kilometres (45 miles) south of Algiers.

The helicopter crews realised afterwards that not only had they hit members of the armed group but also the monks, Buchwalter said, according to the source.

Buchwalter said he had been told of the incident by an Algerian soldier whose brother had participated in the helicopter attack.

The monk's heads -- but not their bodies -- were found by security forces two months after they were kidnapped in March 1996.

Buchwalter told investigators that the bodies were riddled with bullets, said the source, adding that the question was now being asked if the bodies were dismembered to avoid the bullets being identified as army munitions.

The general informed the French military chief of staff and the French ambassador but his reports were never followed up and he was told to remain silent to avoid damaging Franco-Algerian relations, the source said.

Herve de Charette, French foreign minister at the time of the events, said Tuesday he did not doubt that Buchwalter had transmitted such a report to the French defence ministry.

But he added that "during this period there were many interpretations" of what had really happened.

Baudouin said Monday he would ask to see Buchwalter's reports and for Charette and French intelligence agents involved in the affair to be questioned.

French Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said Buchwalter's statement brought a significant "new element" to the case and promised "everything will be done to discover the perpetrators and the conditions of these killings".

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, re-elected in April for a third mandate, began a policy of national reconciliation in 1999 after more than a decade of Islamist violence.

Thousands of hardline Islamists have since handed themselves in and Bouteflika hinted during his election campaign at a possible referendum aimed at granting a general amnesty for those who give up their arms.

AFP / Expatica

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