Would Algeria help hide Gaddafi from rebels?

Colonel Gaddafi Abdelaziz Bouteflika

Algeria fears Islamist rebels and terrorist threats, but support for Gaddafi could bring greater risks

News LAST UPDATED AT 16:57 ON Wed 31 Aug 2011

Why has the Algerian government chosen to provide refuge to several members of the Gaddafi family? More importantly, might it agree to harbour the missing dictator himself?

The official line from Algeria is that they took in the Gaddafis - wife Safia, daughter Aisha and sons Muhammad and Hannibal - because of the Arabic "holy rule of hospitality" which they said in many parts of the Sahara is "mandatory".

But according to Guma al-Gamaty, the NTC's UK co-ordinator, the family were kept waiting on the Libya-Algerian border for 10 to 12 hours "while the Algerian government decided what to do. It was the Algerian president himself [Abdelaziz Bouteflika] who authorised their entry."

Whether Bouteflika - pictured above with Gaddafi last year - was keen to authorise the family's shelter is a moot point. Algeria has been on the side of the Gaddafis ever since the rebels emerged, citing the rebels' vulnerability to exploitation by Islamist factions. As a result, Algeria remains the only Libyan neighbour not to have recognised the rebel-led National Transitional Council.

"The Algerian government has been relatively vocal in saying to the outside world that it fears that arms will come out of the struggle in Libya that will add to the terrorist threat in north Africa," Jon Marks, associate fellow at Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa programme, told The First Post.

"They have also pointed out the fact that there are a number of Islamist factions that make up the rebels in Benghazi. Consequentially, Algeria seems to have given degrees of covert assistance to government."

Following a decade-long bloody civil war in Algeria between the government and several Islamist groups, there is a strong desire to prevent Islamists gaining power in the region.

But while sheltering the less politically offensive members of Gaddafi's family might be justifiable, taking in Gaddafi himself - or his wanted sons Saif and Saadi - would be far too risky.

Bouteflika managed to side-step major protests earlier this year by promising reforms and dismantling the 19-year emergency rule, but Algeria is far from safe from what Nejib Ayachi, founder and president of the Washington-based Maghreb Center, calls the "revolutionary contagion".

"The situation in Algeria is in many ways relatively similar to the one prevailing in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt," Ayachi told The First Post. He pointed to the identical demands of protesters: jobs, human rights, lower food prices and a government that listens to its people.

Taking in Libya's ousted dictator would almost certainly reignite unrest, and not just among the Algerian public. Last Friday, 18 people were killed in the country by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) suicide bombers protesting against their government's support for Gaddafi.

Algeria would also risk ruining diplomatic relations with the NTC, who have already called the governement's decision to take in members of his family "an act of aggression" and "are warning anybody not to shelter Gaddafi and his sons".

"Having Gaddafi turn up on your door step would be a nightmare for any leader, no matter how experienced," said Marks. "They definitely won't want him but would they harbour him if he arrived there? Elements of the Algerian press have indicated that Gaddafi would be handed over to the International Criminal Court if he arrived there, but I just don't know." · 

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