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France still haunted by Algerian conflict

France still haunted by Algerian conflict

PARIS, France (CNN) -- An elderly general's claim that French forces used torture to quell an uprising in Algeria 43 years ago has re-opened old wounds and raised the prospect of legal action against his former colleagues.

General Paul Aussaresses, who was 39 and in charge of French military intelligence in 1957, has admitted it was his job to track and hunt down the Algerian chain of command that organised what became known as the Battle of Algiers.

Aussaresses admitted on French radio earlier this week that he had "personally killed 24 Algerian prisoners" during the uprising in what at the time was a French province.

Contemporary French police records in Algiers state that, of an estimated 24,000 arrests made at the time, "3,024 people disappeared."

"I never liked the use of torture," said Aussaresses in his interview. "But I resigned myself to it when I arrived in Algeria, by which time it was already commonplace.

"If I had to do it all over again, I'd be upset. But I don't think there were any alternatives."

General Jacques Massu, 92, the commander of French paratroopers who were charged with putting down the 1957 insurrection in Algiers, also spoke this week about the use of torture.

France, he said, should recognise and condemn the actions that were taken at the time. "Morally," he says, "torture is ugly."

Aussaresses was a central character in an episode of French history which one British historian has described as, "A savage war of peace."

Some observers say that Algeria was France's Vietnam.

Lionel Jospin
French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin says truth of what happened in Algeria must come out  

By 1957 an armed insurrection against French rule, which began in 1954, had spread to the streets of the "kasbah," the Arab quarter of Algiers.

Guerrilla-style attacks on French troops, civilians and institutions were numerous and many people died as French troops moved to stifle the uprising in the kasbah.

It was an open secret even then that French military methods applied in this context included the widespread use of torture.

Any means were seen as acceptable to reach the ends, and the French government turned a blind eye to what was happening at police and military headquarters in Algiers.

But almost half a century later, Aussaresses' comments have re-opened old wounds and sparked heated debate in France.

Not least among them: what should today's French political and legal authorities do about it?

Should those responsible for sanctioning the use of torture in Algeria and now in their 80's or 90's, be charged?

What about the victims of torture?

It is unlikely that a parliamentary commission of enquiry will be established, and it is equally unlikely that documents relating to the Algerian war will be accessible any time soon.

The Ministry of Defence says it wishes to be "transparent" about what happened during the conflict.

But the "transparency" is likely to have to wait since defence ministry officials have doubled the standard 30-year rule on accessing the documents.

Officially, the defence ministry says that those who admit to the use of torture will be sanctioned, and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has said that the truth about what happened must be established.

The agreement which brought the war to an end in 1962 and marked the end of French rule, allows for a general amnesty on both sides of the conflict for those suspected of breaking international conventions, such as the use of torture and summary executions.

Hundreds of thousands of French citizens left Algeria after 1962, as did, over the following three decades, large numbers of Algerian emigrants.

Today, ethnic Algerians are the largest immigrant group in France and many of them are now second- or third-generation French citizens.

Following France's defeat in Algeria, the then French president Charles de Gaulle knew that he had to unite the country, which had, at times, appeared threatened by civil-war over the Algerian question.

De Gaulle succeeded in doing so -- partly by brushing under the carpet events from the Nazi occupation, Vietnam and Algeria, and partly by convincing the French people they still had a major role to play in world affairs.

In some ways, France has not come to grips with some aspects of its historical past until fairly recently. And some observers would even say that France has still not done so at all.

French Government
Algerian History

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