Regional threats prompt closer ties between France and Algeria

Friday 12/06/2015
Defrosting of ties

ALGIERS - French President Francois Hollande arrives in former colony Algeria on Monday as the two nations, once bitter foes, work ever closer to tackle regional threats from Mali to Libya.

His trip comes after Libya's internationally recognised government said the jihadist mastermind of the 2013 siege of an Algerian gas plant in which 38 hostages died had been killed in a US air strike.

It is Hollande's second time in Algiers since a 2012 visit during which he recognised France's century of "brutal" rule over Algeria which ended in a bloody independence war.

Despite their prickly past, mutual concern over rampant jihadism in north Africa is of prime importance to both countries.

Algeria shares a border with Mali's north, which is still fragile after a French-led operation in 2013 ousted jihadists who had seized the upper half of the west African nation.

While French troops patrol northern Mali, Algiers has mediated a peace accord between Mali's main Tuareg-led rebel groups and Bamako which will be signed on June 20.

Algeria has also hosted talks between rival political factions from chaos-torn Libya, with which it also shares a long border.

Energy-rich Algeria is eager to promote regional peace, and with France running counter-terrorism Operation Barkhane in five countries in the Sahel -- three of which border it -- Hollande and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika have much to discuss.

After arriving, the French president will first meet Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal.

"I attach great importance to the political dialogue between France and Algeria as our two countries contribute to stability and security in the region," Hollande wrote in Algeria's French-language daily Le Quotidien d'Oran ahead of his visit.

A statement from the Algerian presidency said Hollande's visit was "marked by a significant deepening of dialogue and political consultation between the two countries".

The defrosting of ties in recent years comes half-a-century after French forces brutally cracked down on Algerians fighting for independence in a 1954-62 war that left some 1.5 million Algerians dead.

It has remained a deep wound between the countries which -- despite their troubled past -- remain closely linked with more than half a million Algerians living in France.

Algeria is also still dealing with the fallout from a civil war between the military and Islamist militants in the 1990s that killed tens of thousands of people.

During that time it was the birthplace of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat which later became an Al-Qaeda affiliate -- carrying out attacks and kidnappings both in Algeria and across the border in Mali and Mauritania.

The group, known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) played a key role in the takeover of northern Mali in 2012.

Libya said the Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who allegedly masterminded the Algerian gas plant siege in 2013 in which 38 hostages, mostly Westerners, died, has been killed in a US air strike.

The Pentagon said on Sunday Belmokhtar had been the target of the strike but did not confirm he had been killed.

Belmokhtar's death has been reported many times in the past. He was previously thought to have been killed in Mali, but security sources said last year that he had moved into Libya.

On the political front in its relations with Algiers, Paris avoids commenting on 78-year-old Bouteflika's ill-health and accusations that his re-election last year as president for a fourth term was riddled with fraud.

France -- whose economy is sorely in need of a boost -- is also keen to win back the title of Algeria's main trade partner, which China secured in 2013.

Official figures show Franco-Algerian trade reaching 10.5 billion euros in 2014.