ALGIERS Two prominent Algerian Islamists called on the president on Wednesday to release up to 7,000 Islamists from prison, a move they said would draw a line under a conflict that killed an estimated 200,000 people.
Most of the thousands jailed during Algeria's nearly two-decade conflict between Islamist insurgents and government forces were freed under an amnesty but a hard core did not qualify for release.
A letter asking for the prisoners' release was sent to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika by Sheikh Abdelfateh Zeraoui, a well-known Salafist preacher, and Sheikh Hachemi Sahnouni, one of the founders of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).
"Please accept our request to pardon Islamist prisoners ... to dry the tears of children, give hope to the widows, to families and to solve the problem in a definitive way," said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters.
"In return, the prisoners have signed a commitment to reject violence, and abandon political activity," it said.
There was no immediate response from the Algerian authorities.
Bouteflika, seeking to avoid a revolt of the kind that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, has promised political reform. Sheikh Abdelfateh said it was therefore the right moment to raise the issue of Islamist prisoners.
"This is the time to make the request as it is a time of change," said Sheikh Abdelfateh, who himself was jailed in the Sahara desert for membership of Islamist groups but has since renounced violence.
Leading Islamists have in the past asked for an amnesty for all insurgents still fighting security forces if they lay down their arms, but this is the first time a request has been made to release prisoners.
Algerian authorities have not disclosed the number of Islamists being held in jail, but Sheikh Abdelfateh told Reuters: "There are between six and seven thousand Islamist prisoners in Algeria's prisons."
Algeria plunged into chaos after the military-backed government scrapped the 1992 legislative elections, which the FIS, a radical Islamist party, was poised to win.
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 programme 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, including figures such as Hassan Hattab, who founded the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in 1998, one of the most violent militant groups.
Bouteflika has resisted pressure 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.
The number of Islamists now in Algeria's jails is sharply down from at the peak of the violence in the 1990s.
"There were 56,000 of us in 1997," said Sheikh Abdelfateh.
(Editing by Sophie Hares)