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Latest update : 2009-07-07

A retired French general told a judge probing the 1996 killing of seven monks that Algerian army helicopters hunting Islamist rebels had opened fire on a camp and hit the abducted monks by mistake, according to French media reports.

AFP - A French general has told a probe into a 1996 massacre of French monks that the Algerian army killed them by mistake and the French state covered up the tragedy, a source close to the affair said Monday.

General Francois Buchwalter was at the time France's military attache in Algiers and was told of the incident by an Algerian soldier whose brother had participated in the killings of the seven abducted monks, the source said.

The now-retired general was told that Algerian army helicopters, hunting Islamist rebels, opened fire on a camp they spotted in the mountains of the former French colony, the source told AFP, confirming French media reports.

The helicopter crews realised afterwards that not only had they hit members of the armed group but also the monks, Buchwalter last month told a French anti-terrorist judge probing the killings, the source said.

A former colleague of Buchwalter at France's elite Saint-Cyr military school, whose brother was the head of the helicopter squadron in question, told him of the blunder a few days after the monks were buried.

Buchwalter informed the French military chief of staff and the French ambassador in reports but these reports were never followed up, the source said.

The monks had refused to leave their home in Algeria's southern Tibehirine region despite the area being one of the main battlegrounds in a long war between government forces and rebel groups.

Their abduction in late March 1996 was claimed by the Islamic Group Army (GIA), which negotiated with France for their release.

But after the talks collapsed, it said it would decapitate them and their heads -- but not their bodies -- were found at the end of May in the same year by security forces.

Buchwalter told the judge carrying out the current probe that the bodies were riddled with bullets, said the source, adding that the question was now being asked if the bodies were dismembered to avoid the bullets being identified.

The Paris prosecutor's office opened an inquiry in 2004 into the massacre after a civil suit filed by the family of one of the monks and by a member of the monks' order.   

Patrick Baudouin, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the latest allegations were proof there had been an attempt at "dissimulation on the part of the Algerian authorities and certainly on the part of the French authorities."   

Baudouin said he would soon ask that the state provide him with the reports made by Buchwalter and for then French foreign minister Herve de Charette and French intelligence agents involved in the affair to be questioned.

He said he would also request that Michel Leveque, France's ambassador to Algeria at the time, be questioned again.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, asked Monday about the latest twist in the long-running saga, replied only that a legal inquiry was under way and that he could not comment on the matter before it had been completed.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, re-elected in April for a third mandate, began a policy of national reconciliation in 1999 after more than a decade of Islamist violence which killed at least 150,000 people.

Thousands of hardline Islamists have since handed themselves in and Bouteflika hinted during his election campaign at a possible referendum aimed at granting a general amnesty for those who give up their arms.

Date created : 2009-07-06