Assassination of leading trade unionist blow to regime


ONE of President Liamine Zeroual's closest associates, Abdelhak Benhamouda, was gunned down in front of his headquarters building in central Algiers yesterday morning. The leader of the General Union of Algerian Trade Workers (UGTA), Mr Benhamouda died later in hospital.

Trained as a teacher, Mr Benhamouda's name was synonymous with trade unionism in Algeria since he rose to the head of the UGTA in the mid-1980s. In 1991, his abhorrence of Islamic fundamentalism led him to found a lobby group called the National Committee for the Safeguard of Algeria, which applauded the military's cancellation of Algeria's first free parliamentary elections in January 1992.

The assassination is a serious blow to President Zeroual's regime at a time of daily massacres and car bombings. More than 200 people have been killed since the start on January 10th of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Mr Benhamouda had announced his intention to found a political party before this year's legislative elections. He had publicly supported Gen Zeroual's candidacy in the 1995 presidential election.

Assassinations of prominent people are a common and chilling thread in Algeria's five-year civil war. President Mohamed Boudiaf was murdered in June 1992. A former prime minister and several cabinet ministers have also been killed. Mr Benhamouda's brother and brother-in-law were assassinated in 1994. In the same year, Mr Benhamouda escaped unharmed when gunmen wounded his driver in front of his home.

The UGTA is the most important of the East-bloc style "mass organisations" which sprang from the National Liberation Front (FLN), the party that ruled Algeria for 30 years after independence in 1962. During the 1954-62 war of independence, the UGTA organised Algerian workers against their French employers. Mr Benhamouda had quarrelled with reforming FLN leaders, who tried to turn the party into an independent opposition movement. When old-fashioned party apparatchiks staged an in-house coup last year, the UGTA's relations with the FLN improved.

A former colleague of Mr Benhamouda described him as "a very likeable person, very open, with an acute sense of workers' rights coupled with a very strong national vision".