Sarkozy to release details about beheaded monks in Algeria

Wed, Jul 8, 2009, 01:00

“I WANT the truth,” President Nicolas Sarkozy said yesterday, promising to release classified documents about the kidnapping and beheading of seven Trappist monks in Algeria 13 years ago.

Mr Sarkozy was reacting to testimony by retired French general Francois Buchwalter before an examining magistrate. In the deposition, which was revealed by Le Figaro newspaper and Mediapart webside, Buchwalter said he believed the monks were killed by Algerian security forces, who then mutilated them to prevent the truth being known.

The seven monks were kidnapped from their monastery at Tibehirine, in the mountains 70km south of Algiers, on March 27th, 1996. The abduction was claimed by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which initiated negotiations for a prisoner exchange with the French embassy in Algiers, then announced it had “cut the throats” of the hostages.

On May 30th, 1996, the monks’ heads were found by the roadside near the town of Medea. Their bodies were never located. Algerian authorities asked the French not to bring shame on their country by revealing this detail. On the day of the funeral, the monks’ families learned the coffins had been weighed down with earth, and contained only heads.

Gen Buchwalter was the French military attaché in Algiers from 1995 until 1998. An Algerian friend, who had attended the Saint-Cyr military academy with him, told Buchwalter his brother piloted a helicopter that attacked an encampment in the mountains between Blida and Medea in May 1996. The locals had been driven out, and all people remaining were assumed to be Islamist guerrillas.

“They fired on the camp,” Gen Buchwalter said in his testimony. “Once the helicopter landed, they discovered that they’d fired on the monks. The monks’ bodies were riddled with bullets.”

French press reports speculate that the Algerian military decapitated the monks and disposed of their bodies because autopsies would have found munitions from 20mm machine guns mounted on Algerian army helicopters.

At least 118 foreigners were assassinated in Algeria between 1993 and 1996. Although the murders were attributed by the government to Islamist guerrillas, there have long been rumours that the insurgency was infiltrated by the military, which carried out atrocities to discredit the guerrillas.

Franco-Algerian relations have been poisoned by these allegations, but nothing as damning as Gen Buchwalter’s testimony surfaced before. “Relations between major countries are based on the truth and not on lies,” Mr Sarkozy said yesterday. The general’s deposition is also damaging for the French government of the time. He says he gave a written report of his information to the French ministry of defence, the chief of staff, and to Michel Levêque, who was France’s ambassador in Algiers. “No one followed up. They observed the black-out requested by the ambassador,” Gen Buchwalter told the judge.

Alain Juppé, who was prime minister in 1996, yesterday said he knew nothing about a cover-up. Hervé de Charette, who was foreign minister, said Buchwalter’s information was second-hand, and he prefers “to keep to the most practical version, which is based on facts: the GIA claimed responsibility for these events.” The opposition socialists demanded a parliamentary inquiry. “The delirium of a French general” was the headline in yesterday’s El Watan newspaper, which is published in Algiers and is close to the government. The Algerian ministry of defence did not respond to El Watan’s requests for comment.

Other accounts have alleged the involvement of the Algerian security services in the kidnapping, as well as the killing, of the monks. As early as June 1998, Le Monde newspaper cited church officials’ suspicions about the role of the Algerian authorities. Last year, Italian newspaper La Stampa reported that rogue elements of the security forces organised the abduction to stir international outrage at Islamist exactions.

In 1993, 14 Croatian technicians had their throats slashed and were emasculated, not far from Tibehirine monastery. In 1994, four priests were murdered in Kabylie. The Trappist fathers held a secret ballot; all voted to remain. Fr Christian de Chergé drafted his “spiritual will”, which begins: “If it happens one day – and that could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism that seems to engulf all foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country...”