The killing, in 1996, of seven Trappist monks in Tibhirine (also spelled Tibéhirine in French), Algeria, made it again to the front page of many Algerian and French newspapers this past week. According to French newspapers (Le Figaro, Le Monde, Le Point), retired General François Buchwalter, former military attaché at the French embassy in Algiers, testified under oath that he had learned from an Algerian officer that the monks were killed, in what amounted to a military blunder, by Algerian armed forces. Buchwalter further claims that he reported the information to his superiors and was asked to keep things quiet. This information was published a year ago in La Stampa (French version), but the author referred to an unnamed high-ranking source and it is not known whether Buchwalter is that source.
Until now, the official narrative of the event has always been that the monks were kidnapped and killed by the Armed Islamic Group (better know by its acronym in French, GIA, Groupe Islamique Armé ). The GIA had been in secret negotiations with the French embassy to obtain the release of one of its leaders, Abdelhak Layada, who had been sentenced to death in 1995 (he was released in 2006 under the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation.) When the negotiations broke down, the GIA beheaded the monks (their bodies were never recovered) and claimed responsibility for the assassination. More details can be obtained in John Kiser’s book or this Wikipedia entry (in French.) However, subsequent massacres carried out by the GIA and other groups led to the emergence of an alternative story. It was rumored that the GIA was in fact infiltrated and manipulated, as counter-insurgency technique, by the Algerian military who was trying to rally Algerian and international public opinion to its side in its fight against Muslim extremists. “Qui tue qui?” (“Who kills whom?” ) became a popular catch phrase in the late nineties to express doubts about the version of events presented by the Algerian government.
The reports by the French media did not generate an immediate official response from Algeria, but newspapers there were quick to dismiss the allegations, describing them as “science fiction” , and “ramblings” by a “delusional” general. French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s promise to release classified documents and let the justice department do its work to fully investigate the story, fueled suspicions that General Buchwalter’s testimony was part of a deliberate plan. On the one hand, this could be viewed as a purely internal French affair. Sarkozy’s effort to re-organize France’s secret services has met some resistance, and these revelations, which could also implicate his predecessor, could strengthen his position. On the other hand, Sarkozy’s comment that these revelations would not affect his relations with the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was viewed as evidence that this whole affair could be part of an attempt to weaken Ahmed Ouyahia, the current prime minister, who already occupied this position in 1996. Ouyahia, who is widely believed to be a potential successor of Bouteflika, is viewed with suspicion by Paris where some of his decisions concerning foreign investments have been well received. This story, with its possible impact on the Algerian military, could also play in the hands of Bouteflika who has been engaged in a constant tug-of-war with the military leadership. It could also explain the lack of official reaction by the government. Yesterday, in step with press reports, Abdelaziz Ziari, president of national assembly, accused unspecified parties of trying to revive the famous “Qui tue qui?”, but Ouyahia, who had just met Sarkozy at the G8 summit in Italy, refused to comment. It was announced today, that the national TV network will broadcast, on Monday, a special report with interviews of Hervé de Charrette, former French foreign minister and Yves Bonnet, former head of the French intelligence agency DST.