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Algeria blames Israel for deadly forest fires it says were started by terrorists

Government accuses two local groups that it claims are being supported by the ‘Zionist entity’ and Morocco

Charred cars are pictured after a fire near the village of Achlouf, in the Kabyle region, east of Algiers, August 13, 2021. (Toufik Doudou/AP)
Charred cars are pictured after a fire near the village of Achlouf, in the Kabyle region, east of Algiers, August 13, 2021. (Toufik Doudou/AP)

Algeria has blamed Israel for forest fires that killed dozens, and said Wednesday that it would review relations with Morocco, which it accused of also being complicit in the blazes.

A statement from the country’s presidency said that suspects had been arrested from two organizations designated as terror groups that it said were being supported by Israel and Morocco. Some of those arrested were detained in connection with a brutal lynching that officials have also blamed on one of the groups.

“The high security council has decided… to intensify the efforts of the security services to arrest the rest of the individuals involved in the two crimes, as well as all members of the two terrorist movements that threaten public security and national unity,” the presidency statement said.

It said it aimed for the groups’ “total eradication, particularly the MAK, which receives the support and aid of foreign parties… Morocco and the Zionist entity,” the statement added, referring to Israel.

The Paris-based Movement for Self-determination of Kabylie (MAK) told AFP it rejected the accusations.

Algerian authorities blame the fires on the MAK, an independence movement of the mainly Berber region of Kabylie, which extends along the Mediterranean coast east of the capital Algiers.

The authorities further accuse the MAK of involvement in the lynching of a man falsely accused of arson, an incident that sparked outrage. The mob also set the victim on fire.

Authorities have arrested 61 people over the incident.

Algeria’s DGSN security agency said investigations had uncovered “a criminal network, classed as a terrorist organization” that was behind the fires, according to the “admission of arrested members.”

Some of the suspects have admitted being members of the MAK, according to confessions broadcast on Algerian television.

Algiers has also accused the Islamist-inspired Rachad movement of involvement. It classified both the MAK and Rachad as “terrorist organizations” in May.

At least 90 people, including 33 soldiers, were killed in dozens of forest fires that broke out amid a blistering heatwave on August 9 across swaths of northern Algeria.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has said most of the fires were “criminal” in origin.

The decision to review relations with neighboring Morocco was made during an extraordinary meeting of the country’s security council, chaired by Tebboune and dedicated to evaluating the situation after the fires.

“The incessant hostile acts carried out by Morocco against Algeria have necessitated the review of relations between the two countries,” the presidency statement said.

It said there would also be an “intensification of security controls on the western borders” with Morocco. The statement did not clarify what the review might mean.

The border between Algeria and Morocco has been closed since 1994.

Last month, Algeria recalled its ambassador in Morocco for consultations, after Morocco’s envoy to the United Nations, Omar Hilale, expressed support for self-determination for Algeria’s Kabylie region.

At the time, Algeria’s foreign ministry said Morocco thus “publicly and explicitly supports an alleged right to self-determination of the Kabylie people.”

Relations between Algiers and Rabat have been fraught in past decades, especially over the flashpoint issue of the disputed Western Sahara.

Morocco considers the former Spanish colony an integral part of its kingdom, but Algeria has backed the Polisario movement, which seeks independence there.

Algeria does not recognize Israel, which it refers to only as “the Zionist entity.” By contrast, Israel announced earlier this month, during an official visit by Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to Morocco, that it will establish full diplomatic ties with Morocco within two months.

The Trump administration brokered an Israel-Morocco normalization agreement last year, mending ties that were cut off following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. However, the 2020 deal did not establish full diplomatic relations.

Algeria is among several Mediterranean countries that have seen forest fires in recent weeks, including Morocco.

The blazes in Algeria burned tens of thousands of hectares of forest. Emergency services on Wednesday declared all the fires had been extinguished.

Critics say the authorities failed to prepare for the blazes.

Israel has also seen a spate of forest fires, most recently a three-day conflagration on the outskirts of Jerusalem that devastated thousands of acres of forest. Though there were no fatalities, there was some damage to property in communities caught in the fire.

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