New evidence may solve mystery of decapitated monks

Author: By John Lichfield in Paris

Rumours have swirled for years around the kidnapping and decapitation of the Cistercian monks, which was blamed by authorities in Algiers and Paris on Islamist radical terrorists. New evidence presented to an investigating judge in France by a French general suggests that the kidnapped monks may have been killed by accident by airborne Algerian soldiers who were trying to rescue them.

Their bodies were then decapitated by the Algerian soldiers to make their deaths look like an act of terrorism, according to General François Buchwalter, who was French military attaché in Algeria at the time. In a leaked interview with a French judge, the general also suggests that it may have been the Algerian authorities, not Islamist terrorists, who assassinated the French bishop of Oran, three months later, because he had embarrassing information on the monks’ fate.

To the fury of the Algerian government, President Nicolas Sarkozy has decided to lift the French state secrecy which has surrounded the monks’ death for 13 years. “Relations between great countries must be built on truth, not lies,” he said. President Sarkozy announced that all possible assistance would be given to the investigating judge, Marc Trevidic. He called on the Algerian authorities ? with whom the French President has acutely strained relations ? to re-open their own investigation into the case.

Judge Trevidic is also at the heart of another sensitive “terrorist” investigation which recently took a dramatic turn. He and another judge let it be known last month that a bomb attack in Karachi which killed 11 French submarine engineers and four Pakistanis in May 2002 was not ? as previously suggested ? the work of Islamist terrorists. Instead, the two judges told families of the victims that it seemed likely that the bombing was planned by unknown Pakistani government figures who had been denied promised “commissions” on a large submarine contract with France.

The re-opening of both cases within three weeks may, or may not, be a coincidence. The Pakistani affair could reflect badly on President Sarkozy who was part of the French government which approved the legal “commissions” in 1994. After a change of government, they were blocked by President Jacques Chirac in 1995 because he suspected that kick-backs had been paid to his French political rivals. The scandal surrounding the deaths of the French monks could yet reflect badly on the former President Chirac, who was in power at the time.

A former anti-terrorist judge, and former deputy in M. Sarkozy’s centre-right party, Alain Marsaud, said yesterday that both Paris and Algiers had conspired to “bury” the truth. He said that the then French government was “terrified” of the authorities in Algiers. There were suspicions, he said, that elements in the Algerian security forces were connected with Islamist bomb attacks on the Paris Metro the previous year.

M. Marsaud said that he too had been given information, in 1996, that the Algerian forces had been responsible for the monks’ deaths but he had been refused permission to open a French judicial investigation.

At the time of the monks’ deaths, the Algerian government was involved in a violent civil war ? sometimes known as the “dirty war” ? with Islamist extremists in the Groupes Islamistes Armés or GIA. There have been multiple allegations, from dissident military and government sources within Algeria, that the war was not all that it seemed. Some of the most violent attacks, they said, were carried out by groups loyal to the army in order to diminish support for the Islamist cause.

The six monks were kidnapped on 26 April 1996. Their heads ? but not the rest of their bodies ? were found on 30 May. According to the leaked evidence given to Judge Trevidic by General Buchwalter, the killings were a clumsy accident. The monks were killed by automatic fire from Algerian military helicopters.

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