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Algerian Resolution Possible; Voters Endorse Amnesty Plan

By Howard Schneider

Wearied by seven years of bloodletting, Algerians overwhelmingly endorsed an amnesty plan for Islamic rebels Thursday in a referendum designed to strengthen President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in his campaign to end a vicious underground war that has cost an estimated 100,000 lives.

Although the pace of killing has diminished recently, Thursday’s vote was only one step toward ending the conflict. But the referendum has raised hopes that Algeria may finally be able to stop the relentless battle between its ruthless Islamic zealots on one side and, on the other, its equally aggressive security forces.

The voting took on a peculiarly patriotic hue, more an expression of desire for reconciliation and a fresh start than a judgment about policy. Since a yes majority was assured, turnout became the only issue. Officials said 75 percent of the 17 million voters participated, giving Bouteflika the mandate he said he needed to navigate between the Islamic rebellion and hardline army officers who see “eradication” as the only response.

“I’m doing my duty, for my country,” Kader Messauda said as she left one downtown polling place in Algiers, the seaside capital. “All we need is peace.”

But even as the killing has slowed in the cities and receded into the countryside, even as Algerians have begun vesting their hopes in Bouteflika’s rhetoric of reconciliation and truth-telling, people here say they also know that the process of mending their nation has just begun.

“There is blood between the Algerians,” said Aissa Benlakhdar, president of the Irchad Islah Association, an Islamic cultural and welfare group that supported Thursday’s referendum. “This is not a vote that everything is OK. It is a starting point. For this we can overcome the enmity. We are voting, all together, to work tomorrow, all together.”

Voters were asked a single question: “Do you agree with the president’s approach to restore peace and civilian concord?”

Underlying that question was Bouteflika’s amnesty -- Islamic rebels have been invited to turn themselves in on a pledge that, if they were not directly involved in killings, they will escape punishment -- and his promise to breathe new life into Algeria’s wheezing petroleum-based economy and its often sclerotic and corrupt administration.