In May 1996, the heads of seven French Catholic Cistercian-Trappist monks1, kidnapped two months earlier from their monastery in Tibhirine, Algeria, were found by a roadside, some hanging from trees in plastic bags. Their murders remain unsolved, despite initial official claims that Islamic extremists were responsible.
The tragedy is the subject of the French film 'Des hommes et des dieux', (English title: 'Of Gods & Men'), a huge box-office hit which has clocked up more than 2.5 million cinema admissions since it was released in September.
An ongoing French judicial investigation is exploring the theory that they were mistakenly murdered in an attack on their hostage-takers, in a presumed Islamic extremist group's camp in the desert, by Algerian army helicopter gunships, and their bodies mutilated as part of an appalling subsequent cover-up. In the first of a two-part report, we return to the moment when Mediapart first revealed the astonishing evidence uncovered by the investigation, and the many further very disturbing questions it now raises about the involvement of both Paris and Algiers in disguising the horrific blunder.
It was in July 2009 when Mediapart published extracts from the deposition before French magistrates Marc Trévidic and Philippe Coirre of a key witness, French Army General François Buchwalter, former defence attaché of the French Embassy in Algiers, who had until then never spoken about the case.
This high-ranking officer stated that the monks were indeed the unintended victims of a desert raid by Algerian army helicopter gunships. More importantly, he stated that he had reported this information to the French authorities and was asked to cover up the affair. They "implemented the black-out requested by the [French] ambassador," the general revealed.
The seven French Trappist monks disappeared from the Tibhirine monastery, about 90 kilometres south of the capital Algiers, in the Medea region, on March 27th 1996. The kidnapping was claimed, on April 18th, by Armed Islamic Group (GIA)1 Emir, Djamel Zitouni.
In a communiqué, he demanded the release of a group of Islamist rebels in exchange for the monks. After nearly a month, on May 23rd, 1996, a report by a radio station in Tangiers, Morocco, announced that the seven monks had been killed two days earlier, stating this was because the French authorities refused to negotiate.
A week later, on May 30th, the Algerian authorities announced the discovery of the monks' remains on a road near Medea. Only their heads were ever recovered, a fact the Algerian army tried to dissimulate.
Over the years, after a number of revelations by former Algerian military personnel, the theory that the Algerian army was in some way implicated in the affair gained in credence. In France, the inquest opened by the Paris public prosecutor and first led by anti-terrorist magistrate. Jean-Louis Bruguière.
The enquiry largely became dormant until Bruguière left his job in 2007, when he was replaced by magistrates Marc Trévidic and Philippe Coirre. In concert with Patrick Baudoin, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs in a civil suit joined to the case, the two magistrates relaunched the investigation.
1: Dom Christian de Chergé, Prior of the community, 59 (years old). Brother Luc Dochier, 82. Brother Bruno Lemarchand, 66. Father Célestin Ringeard, 62. Brother Paul Favre-Miville, 57. Brother Michel Fleury, 52. Father Christophe Lebreton, 45.
2: The FIS Islamic Salvation Front won the first round of legislative elections in December 1991. The army stepped in to prevent it winning the second ballot and the FIS was dissolved in January 1992. The GIA, Armed Islamic Group, arose at that time to support the FIS. Ten years of civil unrest ensued.
French archbishop murdered soon after
It was in this context that, on June 25th, 2009, General Buchwalter, who had been defence attaché to the French Embassy in Algiers from 1995 to 1998, was summoned for questioning.
In an astonishing series of revelations, extracts of which are published here, the general began his testimony on the subject of Roman Catholic Archbishop of Oran, Monsignor Claverie, who was murdered in a bomb blast on August 1st, 1996.
"Did Mgr Claverie, indicate that he knew something about the death of the monks?" magistrate Marc Trévidic asked the general.
"I think he even wrote that," Buchwalter confirmed.
"What did he tell you?" the magistrate asked.
"He thought the Algerian authorities were implicated," the general replied.
"I think there is a link between the insistence of Hervé de Charette [then French Foreign Minister] on going to Tibhirine and the assassination [of the archbishop]," he added. "I saw how infuriated the Algerian Foreign Minister became when Hervé de Charette modified his schedule to go to Tibhirine. The Algerians battled for hours and hours to oppose the trip," the general said.
"Why would the Algerian authorities hold Mgr Claverie responsible for this trip?" the judge queried.
"You know how he died," the general retorted. "He changed his ticket at the last minute. Very few people were informed. The authorities didn't appreciate his freedom of expression regarding either the Islamists or the Algerian powers that be."
General Buchwalter then came to the subject of the Tibhirine monks. "Is it true that some Algerian authorities wanted [their] departure?" asked Marc Trévidic.
"That's right. The Medea wali1 had asked the Tibhirine monks to leave and their refusal had greatly annoyed the authorities," he answered.
1: Algerian provincial governor.
'He said their bodies were riddled with bullets'
Then the general continued: "This is difficult for me because it is something I was asked not to talk about," he began. "I had spoken to Father Veilleux [one of the current civil parties and who discovered that the coffins contained only the monks' heads], to Mgr Teissier and to the ambassador. Just so you understand, I have ties of friendship with several Algerian officers who trained at Saint Cyr1 and it was in this capacity that I met someone whose name I would rather keep quiet because it's possible his brother is still in Algeria."
This anonymous source, according to General Buchwalter, "had a career as an officer then became a businessman in Algeria. He ran a bus company and I saw him often. He was a friend."
"Several days after the monks' funeral, he told me something that his brother had told him in confidence," the general continued. "His brother commanded one of two helicopter squadrons posted in the First Military Command which is headquartered at Blida. His brother was flying one of the two helicopters during a mission in the Blida Atlas [mountain range], between Blida and Medea. This was a cleared zone and the helicopter crew saw a bivouac. As this was a cleared zone, this could only be an armed group [of rebels]. So, they fired on the bivouac. Then they landed, which was quite courageous because there could have been survivors. They took some risks. Once on the ground, they discovered that they had shot [among others] the monks. The monks bodies were riddled with bullets. The Blida CTRI [local Algerian secret services outpost] was informed via radio."
General Buchwalter said there were probably "about a dozen armed men" in the helicopters, adding that he remembered having met, after the funerals, "a gendarmerie doctor2 attached to the French Embassy" and whose name he had "forgotten."
"He had a lot of trouble talking to me about it because the ambassador had made him promise secrecy. I asked him if he had seen the bodies, since my friend told me they were riddled with bullets, and that's when he told me there were only the heads [...] He told me that the heads had spent a long time in the ground, that it was dreadful," the general said.
1: The French military academy.
2: "medécin du renfort de gendarmerie" in the original French.
'They implemented French ambassador's black-out'
The general put forward a theory that has also been advanced by former Algerian military personnel: once the Algerian army discovered its appalling error, it organised a sordid cover-up by decapitating the monks in order to steer suspicion towards the Islamist rebels. The bodies were then disposed of they have never been found in order to erase all forensic evidence, such as the numerous bullet wounds, that could implicate the army.
Furthermore, if the general is to be believed, all this was known to the French authorities. His last two answers to the judge are as short as they are unambiguous: Trévidic asked him:
"As the defence attaché, did you report back, in writing, on what you had learned about the Tibhirine monks from your friend the businessman?"
"Yes." Buchwalter answered.
"Was this report sent to the same authorities as usual?" Trévidic then asked.
"Yes. But there was no follow-up. They implemented the black-out requested by the ambassador," the general replied.
Patrick Baudoin, lawyer for the plaintiffs in the civil suit, said the officer's revelations were "extremely" credible. "They highlight the lies of the Algerian authorities but also the complicit silence of the French state," he said.
The investigation continues and Mediapart has since published secret French intelligence documents that detail the ambivalent role of Algerian intelligence during the kidnap crisis, which we present in the second of this two-part report.
English version: Patricia Brett