monks-graveThe 1996 murder of seven French Catholic monks in Algeria, called the Martyrs of Atlas because of the Atlas mountains where their monastery was located, was not the work of Islamist militants as officially stated at the time, according to testimony by a retired French general to an inquiry into the killings. (Photo: Lyon Cardinal Philippe Barbarin — with red sash — visits monks’ graces, 20 Feb 2007/Larbi Louafi)

In fact, he told a closed-door inquiry in Paris, Algerian troops in a helicopter inadvertently gunned down the Trappists when they strafed an isolated camp they believed belonged to the radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA) that was battling the Algerian state at the time. When they landed to inspect the scene, the troops found the bullet-ridden bodies of the monks who had been kidnapped two months beforehand. Algeria then concocted the story that the Islamists had slit the monks’ throats to hide their fatal blunder.

The inquiry also heard from a Trappist who went to Algeria to identify the bodies. He said he had to insist on having the sealed coffins opened so he could identify the bodies. When his wish was finally granted, he found the coffins contained only the men’s heads and was urged by the French embassy not to divulge this. He told the inquiry he suspected the bodies were disposed of to hide the evidence they had been gunned down.

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The monks have been honoured as Christian victims of Islamist militancy. They were clearly victims of the bloody war between the GIA and the state. The GIA has a sordid part in this story, as they apparently abducted the monks after the Trappists had been kidnapped by Algerian agents in a complicated plot. But if these testimonies are correct, the monks did not die at the hands of Islamists who slit their throats, as the official Algerian explanation has it. (Photo: Lyon Imam Azzedine Gaci prays at monks tomb, with Cardinal Barbarin at his side, 20 Feb 2007/Larbi Louafi)

These testimonies added weight to persistent but less well sourced reports about the role of the Algerian authorities in the killings. They also raise potentially explosive questions about the purported role of France in helping to hide the truth. If secret French defence documents are made public, as the families of the victims demand, some very embarrassing facts may come to light.