Tibhirine monks massacre evidence ‘lost’

By and

In March 1996, seven French Trappist monks were kidnapped from their mountainside monastery in Tibhirine, Algeria. Two months later, their heads were found on a roadside in the same region, some hanging from trees in plastic bags. The circumstances of the killings remain a mystery amid suggestions of a cover-up by the French and Algerian authorities. A French judge is leading a revived investigation into the massacre but, just as he appeared to be approaching a breakthrough this year, Mediapart has learnt that key evidence has been declared missing from government archives.

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During the night of March 26th 1996, seven French Cistercian Trappist monks1 were kidnapped from their monastery in Tibhirine, Algeria. Two other monks inside the Catholic monastery, sited close to the Atlas mountain range 90 kilometres south of the capital Algiers, managed to escape from the group of some 20 kidnappers who have never been formally identified.

Responsibility for the kidnappings was claimed by an Islamic terrorist organisation called the GIA (Armed Islamic Group)2, and which demanded the release of several of its members from Algerian prisons in exchange for the monks' freedom.

After a fruitless two months, during which French intelligence agents failed to track down the monks, a communiqué by the GIA announced they had been executed, detailing that their throats had been slit. One week later, on May 30th, their heads were found on a roadside in the same region, close to the town of Médéa, some hanging from trees in plastic bags. Their decapitated bodies have never been found.

Tibhirine monks Tibhirine monks
It was the start of a mystery that prevails to this day, and which is currently the object of a revived French judicial investigation into their murders. The background to the case is a confused one, involving rivalry between France's domestic and foreign intelligence services, suspicions about the real role of Algerian authorities and intelligence services, who have been accused by several of their own exiled former operatives of manipulating the GIA.

Above all, despite an official line maintained for 15 years by Paris and Algiers that the GIA was responsible for the killings, recently-emerging evidence, reported by Mediapart and summarized in previous articles here and here, suggests that was not the case.

The investigation into the murders of the monks is currently led by Paris-based investigating magistrate Marc Trévidic, a specialist in anti-terrorist enquiries. He is exploring the theory that the monks were mistakenly murdered by Algerian army helicopter gunships during an attack on a suspected GIA desert camp, and that their bodies were subsequently mutilated as part of an appalling cover-up.

The theory of a cover-up is highly embarrassing for both the French and the Algerian authorities, both implicated by the lead. It is given further credence, Mediapart can now reveal, by the recent apparent disappearance of several key documents that Judge Trévidic has demanded from the French government.

The first of the documents that have been described as untraceable is a report by the former military attaché to the French embassy in Algiers, General François Buchwalter, which he claims he drafted and passed on to his superiors after his own early investigation into the murders. As already revealed by Mediapart, during questioning by Trévidic on June 25th 2009, the general reiterated his belief that the seven monks had not been assassinated by the GIA, but were probably killed as the result of a blunder by the Algerian army.

General Buchwalter maintained that he had communicated his conclusions to the French authorities, who in turn asked him to keep his report confidential. He described this as implementing a "black-out requested by the [French] ambassador", Michel Lévêque.

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1: Dom Christian de Chergé, Prior of the community, 59. 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: In elections in Algeria in 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round of legislative elections. The army stepped in to prevent it winning the second ballot and the FIS was dissolved in January 1992. The GIA - the Armed Islamic Group - was created at that time to support the FIS. Ten years of civil unrest ensued.

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The story of the lives and work of the monks in Tibhirine, up until their kidnapping, is the subject of the award-winning French film Des hommes et des dieux, 'Of Gods & Men', (photo), released last September, and which explores their spiritual search in choosing to continue

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their close involvement with the local community, despite numerous terrorist threats urging them to leave the region.