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France commemorates Algerian massacres for first time

AFP - French Veterans Minister Jean-Marc Todeschini lays a wreath at Sétif , in memory of those killed in the 1945 massacre

France’s veterans minister visited Algeria Sunday to mark the 70th anniversary of the 1945 Sétif Massacres, in which up to 45,000 Algerians were killed by French colonists and soldiers.

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Jean-Marc Todeschini told the Algerian APS press agency the visit – the first of a high-level representative of the French government – was a “strong gesture of France’s recognition of the suffering inflicted on Algerians”.

The massacres began after a demonstration on May 8, 1945 – the day the Second World War in Europe ended – in the Algerian market town of Sétif.

The demonstration included pro-independence elements, whose banners and Algerian flags, banned at the time, were confiscated by the colonial gendarmerie, resulting in exchanges of gunfire.

After five days of chaos, the French army and police, as well as civilian colonists, embarked on a series of reprisals, killing suspected Algerian troublemakers out of hand and in some cases aerial-bombing entire villages.

The official French report in the wake of the massacres estimated the number of Algerian deaths at 1,020.

The Algerian government maintains to this day that up to 45,000 people were killed in the massacres, which for many historians marked the beginning of Algeria’s long and bloody independence struggle.

During the period of unrest, anti-French violence resulted in the deaths of around 100 French “Pied Noir” colonists. Reports at the time claimed many victims were raped and mutilated.

It wasn’t until 2005 that France recognised that the reprisals were an “inexcusable tragedy” – the closest the country has come to apologising for its behaviour during a conflict whose bitter legacy continues to sour relations between the two countries.

“My visit is one of friendship and respect,” Todeschini said. “It is an important step towards better understanding our shared history with a view to looking to the future together.”

Todeschini's anniversary visit to Algeria comes ahead of his attendance at commemorations marking the end of the Second World War on May 8.

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