ALGIERS Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika will soon release several thousand Islamists from prison to help draw a line under a conflict that killed an estimated 200,000 people, two prominent Islamists told Reuters.
Bouteflika is trying to stop revolts in other Arab countries from spreading to Algeria, and needs to ensure the backing of Islamists, who represent an influential social force.
Most of the thousands jailed during Algeria's nearly two-decade conflict between Islamist insurgents and government forces have already been freed under an amnesty but a hard core did not qualify for release.
Two Islamist leaders who have campaigned for the release said sources in the presidential administration had told them Bouteflika would sign an order freeing the prisoners, who they say number about 7,000.
"We consider the decision that president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the high military hierarchy will take very shortly by granting a general amnesty to prisoners of the national tragedy a good and courageous decision," the two Islamists said in a letter to Bouteflika, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters.
The letter was signed by Sheikh Abdelfateh Zeraoui, a well-known Salafist preacher, and Sheikh Hachemi Sahnouni, one of the founders of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a radical Islamist party.
A senior government official, contacted by Reuters, said he did not want to comment on any prisoner release.
The majority of former Islamist militants in Algeria have renounced violence, though a rump of about 1,000 fighters affiliated to al Qaeda is still active.
"END TO TRAGEDY"
Farouk Ksentini, a lawyer and a chairman of a human rights body sponsored by the government said: "If true, this is great news which I welcome because it will help put an end to Algeria's tragedy."
Algeria was plunged into chaos after the military-backed government scrapped the 1992 legislative elections, which the FIS was poised to win.
For the next two decades, the country witnessed a conflict between government forces and Islamist insurgents.
There are still sporadic ambushes and kidnappings by militants, who now operate as al Qaeda's north African wing, but the violence has subsided significantly.
As part of a program of national reconciliation, Bouteflika a decade ago offered a partial amnesty to insurgents, provided they were not involved in massacres, rapes or explosions in public places.
Several thousand accepted the amnesty and surrendered to authorities.
Bouteflika has resisted pressure so far to extend the amnesty to cover all militants because, observers say, it could provoke an angry backlash from the families of people killed by the insurgents.
Radical Islamists do not take part in Algeria's politics but they have considerable influence over the country's social, economic and religious life.
The Salafist movement, an ultra-conservative branch of Islamic thought with links to Saudi Arabia, has hundreds of thousands of followers who control most of the vast underground economy, observers say.
When Bouteflika's opponents, inspired by uprisings in other Arab countries, launched a wave of protests, the Islamists stayed on the sidelines and the demonstrations lost momentum after a few weeks.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)