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Algeria holds members of banned party in impenetrable prisons

By MOHAMED ZAAF

ALGIERS, Algeria -- Thousands of members of the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front are being held in primitive dentention camps in Algeria, where angry relatives say they cannot even get official word whether their loved ones are dead or alive.

'We were unable to see the prisoners, and the only things we brought back from our trip were disappointment and anger,' said a man who recently tried to visit a relative being held in the infamous Reggane prison in southern Algeria.

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'We have no news of our relatives since their disappearance. No one wants to inform us of their condition,' he said. 'The gendarmes and the police refused to answer our questions, and for more than a month we did not know if our relatives were dead or alive.'

The relative, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, was among six families that made the 1,000-miles trip across the Sahara Desert to Reggane, a lost village that was briefly pulled from obscurity when the French chose it as the site for their first atomic bomb tests in the early 1960s.

The prison, a collection of tin buildings where about 4,200 inmates are held, is one of seven detention camps used by authorities to incarcerate thousands of persons arrested by police since the government declared a yearlong state of emergency on Feb. 9.

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On Wednesday, Mohamed Boudiaf, the head of the five-member High State Council appointed by the military to run the North African country after legislative elections were canceled in January, told French television that many prisoners would be released before the end of Ramadan, the Muslim season of daily fasting from sunrise to sunset.

Boudiaf said there were about 8,800 people being held in detention camps such as Reggane in southern Algeria. He said officials were seeking other places of internment to deal with the problem of overcrowding.

'I think, I hope, that this situation will not be prolonged,' Boudiaf said. 'There will be many liberations before the end of Ramadan' in early April.

Since coming to power in January, the High State Council has arrested the leader of the Islamic Salvation Front, the nation's main opposition party that was itself outlawed by an Algerian court earlier this month.

The Front, which was certain to win an absolute majority in the second round round of legislative elections, called for the creation of an Islamic state in Algeria, which was annexed by France until independence in 1962.

The government arrested not only the party leadership but also thousands of Islamic Front supporters across the country, carting them off to isolated camps such as the one in Reggane.

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The prisoners have not been allowed to make contact with their families, who do not know where they are being held or even if they are still alive. The six families who made the trip to Reggane said they were confronted with endless administrative problems even though they received formal permission to visit the camp once they established their relatives were being held in Reggane.

The official papers indicated that the visit would take place in just three days, a difficult task given the long distance between the capital of Algiers and the prison camp. At first, the families tried to rent a bus from the state-run bus company.

'But the company had been given instructions not to rent buses for such trips,' a family member said. 'We were therefore forced to hire three taxis, which was a blow to our pocketbooks.'

When they finally made it to the Reggane police station, they were greeted with incredible news. 'The prisoners categorically refuse to see their families,' a family member quoted camp officials as saying.

'We were not convinced, we did not have confidence in the officials and we wanted proof that the refusal to see us came from the prisoners,' the family member said.

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'Given our insistence, one person from our group, accompanied by an army officer, was allowed to approach the prisoners to within 200 meters, where they were allowed to exercise and walk,' the family member said. 'The prisoners turned their backs on him.'

Prison officials told the families that the prisoners had threatened to commit acts of violence if their space is violated, a claim the families said they found difficult to believe.

Unconfirmed reports say some 17 prisoners have died while being held at Reggane, but officials deny the accusation. Nevertheless, the families of those being held have written a letter to the Interior Minister demanding the truth about what is going on inside the Reggane prison.

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