Abbasi Madani (L) and Ali Belhadji
were released after 12 years

Party chief Abassi Madani and deputy Ali Belhadji were released after serving 12-year prison terms for threatening state security, a FIS official said.

“Belhadji is with me on the road to Algiers now. He was freed 15 minutes ago,” said senior FIS official Kemel Guemezi.

He said Madani had been freed earlier on Wednesday.

The Algerian interior ministry declined to comment.

Madani had been under house arrest in Algiers since 1997 while the younger Belhadji had been held at a military prison 30 km from the capital.

Some members of the political elite fear the two FIS leaders may encourage Islamists ahead of presidential elections in April 2004.

Anwar Haddam, a senior FIS member, called for dialogue between different factions in the country to pave the way for a greater political role for the Islamist party.

In an interview with Aljazeera, Haddam called for free elections.

The pair had been arrested shortly before army-backed authorities scrapped the second round of the 1992 legislative elections. Between 100,000 and 150,000 people were killed in the resulting violence.

The FIS gradually lost influence over the largely Muslim North African country of 32 million inhabitants after it was outlawed in 1992.

Over the past two years violence has sharply fallen after Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika announced an amnesty for those who opposed the government.

Background

Madani was arrested in 1991

Madani, 72, joined the National Liberation Front (FLN) in 1954 to fight the French in a war that left more than a million Algerians dead before the North African country won its freedom in 1962.

Madani spent most of the conflict in jail after he was arrested for leading a foiled attack on a radio station.

He later studied for a degree in philosophy before being granted a scholarship to study in Britain, where he took a doctorate in education.

In 1988, riots against economic hardships propelled Madani to the forefront of Algeria's Islamist movement.

That same year he founded the FIS along with Belhadji.