ALGERIA Islamic Militants Threaten More Than This N. African Nation Up to 20,000 People Have Died So Far in a Civil War That Involves France and May Spill over into Other Arab States

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THE nations of the Middle East and North Africa, striving for peace and economic integration, are watching helplessly as the conflict in Algeria descends into civil war.

Algeria has been wracked by violence since the government canceled the country's first multiparty legislative elections in January 1992. The Islamists' main party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), finished first in the election's initial round of voting and was set to win a wide majority in the parliament when military-backed powers took control of the government and banned the FIS.

Since then, the power struggle between the French-backed military, which has a weak political arm, and Islamic militants has escalated to dangerous heights.

"I think the role of the military will soon become more overt, and it will effectively take over the government," says Mamoun Fandy, a political scientist at Mt. Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

"This will make the situation even worse than it is now and make a violent take-over by the Islamists more achievable than ever before," says Mr. Fandy, an Egyptian who lives in the United States.

It is estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 people have died in the insurgency. The intensity of fighting - and deaths - has risen dramatically during the past few weeks as tensions have risen.

Extreme violence on both sides, and the targeting of journalists by Islamic extremists, has caused most foreigners and many Algerian intellectuals and journalists to flee. At least 28 journalists - and 69 foreigners - have been killed. An estimated 200 Algerian journalists, and almost all foreign journalists, have left.

In November, the government closed five newspapers on the grounds that their reporting aided Islamic insurgents of the Islamic Salvation Army and the Armed Islamic Group, which are fighting for an Islamic state in Algeria. Elections promised

Algerian President Liamine Zeroual, backed by France, has promised elections by the end of 1995 but the security situation has already unravelled to such a degree that diplomats say a ballot would have little meaning.

France has a long colonial history with Algeria. It annexed Algeria in 1842, retaining control over it until 1962. When Islamists came close to gaining power in 1989, possibly spurring a massive migration of Algerians to France and threatening its crucial oil and gas contracts, France began backing the military government.

"As long as France is able to intervene on the present basis, the situation in Algeria will deteriorate," says Hugh Roberts, a researcher for the Geopolitics and International Boundaries Research Center at London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

Mr. Roberts adds that US rhetoric on Algeria reflects a more rational approach, but there is little follow-through action. The US has been urging the Algerian government to seek a compromise solution with the relatively moderate FIS, but a brief dialogue initiated by President Zeroual in September soon broke down.

Roberts says the problem in getting a dialogue going between the parties in Algeria did not lie with the opposition parties, which were able to find considerable common ground at a November meeting in Rome. It lay with the hard-line military faction of the government, led by Army Chief of Staff Muhammed Lamari, which has received paramilitary support from France.

The Rome meeting took place after a Roman Catholic peace group invited the government and opposition groups to negotiate their differences. Members from 12 Algerian opposition groups met with mediators, but the government boycotted the meeting.

Western intelligence sources have confirmed recent deliveries of French helicopters and night-sight equipment to the Zeroual regime. …