On Saturday, the detainees, watched by an AFP correspondent, left the Serkadji jail in Algiers in groups of five to seven men at a time, beneficiaries of an amnesty the government of Abdelaziz Bouteflika introduced last month.

Many were greeted by relatives who had gathered outside the prison since the early hours of the morning, following an
announcement last Wednesday of a plan to release 2000 people.

Some of the freed men declined to talk to AFP, others simply said they were glad to be out, then rushed off to see their families, who were crying with joy and the women ululating.

Bouteflika's amnesty, the second since he took office in 1999, was part of  what he described as a Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation after more than seven years of bloodshed between armed Muslim groups and the North African country's secular government.

The first six-month amnesty led to the complete dismantling of the Islamic Salvation Army, the armed wing of a political movement that took up arms in 1992 and primarily battled the army and anti-terrorist special forces.

'Blood crimes'

The second one adopted by the government on 22 February provides a new six-month period to insurgents who have not committed what are known as "blood crimes", to come out of their highland and desert holdouts and lay down their weapons.

The beneficiaries of the new measure were specified by law to include people convicted of Islamist activities, provided these were not massacres, rape and the use of explosives in public places, who got a pardon.

Prisoners were released from a
prison in Algiers on Saturday

Those who had yet definitively to be sentenced will benefit from "commuted sentences or a lifting of the term", the law specified.

Bouteflika's first bid to stop violence - which included the slaughter of whole populations in isolated hamlets, terrorist bombings and raids on traffic at false roadblocks resembling those of the security forces - achieved some success when thousands of people opted for social reintegration.

Movements such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the splinter Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), both put on Washington's blacklist of terrorist bodies with suspected al-Qaida links, adopted more radical tactics than the first insurgents and are blamed for mass killings.

The authorities have claimed these movements are today residual, but sporadic violence goes on.

Referendum

Last September the Algerian people in a referendum backed Bouteflika's charter and a provision to "halt legal proceedings" against those who had surrendered and not committed blood crimes.

The consensus was not total since human-rights groups and
activists on behalf of bereft families criticised the charter as a means for security forces to be spared justice regarding the
"disappeared" at their hands and their own tactics in the conflict.

The unrest began in January 1992 when the army intervened to prevent the holding of the second round of a parliamentary election the now outlawed Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win.

The violence claimed more than 150,000 lives.