March 18, 2007 / 12:46 PM / in 12 years

Top Algeria rebels get death sentence in absentia

ALGIERS, March 18 (Reuters) - An Algerian court has sentenced to death in absentia two former leaders of an al Qaeda-aligned rebel group for forming "an armed terrorist group" and carrying out attacks, state radio said on Sunday.

Hassan Hattab, former leader of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a senior member of the same armed movement, were condemned to death on Saturday at a court in Batna province, 430 km (270 miles) east of the capital Algiers, the radio said.

The GSPC this year renamed itself al Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb to boost its links to al Qaeda.

Hattab and Belmokhtar were among 27 Islamist militants sentenced to death at the Saturday session for "forming an armed terorist group and possession of weapons" and carrying out armed attacks, the radio said.

It was not immediately clear whether the 25 others were present in court or, like Hattab and Belmokhtar, on the run.

State media have said Belmokhtar joined the GSPC through his role as a leader of a smuggling group operating in Algeria’s Sahara desert and in neighbouring Mali, Niger and Libya.

Newspapers have said Hattab had been trying to negotiate a surrender under an amnesty last year that gave immunity to any rebel who gives himself up provided he did not take part in massacres, rape or bombings of public places.

Hundreds surrendered between Feb. 28 last year, when the measure came into force, and its expiry at the end of August.

But experts estimate hundreds more diehard rebels are still fighting, mostly belonging to the al Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb.

Founded in 1998, the GSPC began as an offshoot of another armed group that was waging an armed revolt to establish an Islamic state. The revolt began in 1992 after the army-backed authorities, fearing an Iran-style revolution, scrapped a parliamentary election that an Islamist party was set to win.

Up to 200,000 people were killed in the ensuing bloodshed.

Several death penalties have been issued over the past years but no execution has taken place in the North African country since 1993.

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