The French government should launch an official investigation into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by French forces in Algeria.

The inquiry should examine whether the French government ordered or tolerated the use of torture and summary executions against supporters of Algerian independence in the mid-1950s, as recently alleged by General Paul Aussaresses, and lead to prosecution of those considered responsible, as such crimes are not barred by a statute of limitations. The government should also initiate criminal proceedings against Gen. Aussaresses.

In a letter to President Jacques Chirac, Human Rights Watch said the revelations in the book Special Services, Algeria 1955-1957, and in articles written by Gen. Aussaresses indicated that French civilian and military authorities may have been complicit in a policy of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In his book, Aussaresses described in detail his own participation in torturing prisoners to death and in extrajudicial executions of Algerian activists, including National Liberation Front leader Larbi Ben M'Hidi.

Aussaresses alleges that torture was "tolerated, if not recommended" by high French officials who had an "exact knowledge" of his actions.

"The Aussaresses case has rekindled a national debate about how to address French activities in Algeria almost 50 years ago," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "But that doesn't mean that France can avoid its responsibility to find the truth and to do justice."

Human Rights Watch commended President Chirac for saying that he was "horrified" by Gen. Aussaresses disclosures and for calling for disciplinary sanctions against him and his suspension from the prestigious Legion of Honor. "But the gravity of Aussaresses' crimes demands much more," said Roth. "For France to ignore allegations of war crimes as have been made in this case would seriously undermine efforts around the world to enforce these essential standards."

The rights group, based in New York, noted that opposing Algerian forces also violated humanitarian law by targeting civilians, but said this did not provide valid grounds or excuse for France to use summary executions or torture, nor excuse it from probing these matters now.

In its letter to President Chirac, Human Rights Watch said that the government should also initiate criminal proceedings against Gen. Aussaresses. It noted that a policy of summary executions and torture is a crime against humanity, which under international law is not subject to statutes of limitations or to the French amnesty laws that purport to cover the events in Algeria.

Human Rights Watch has recently made similar recommendations to the government of the United States regarding the allegations, which surfaced around the case of former Senator Bob Kerrey, that United States troops committed violations of international humanitarian law during the Vietnam War.