Massacre in Algeria village leaves 42 dead

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UNKNOWN ATTACKERS massacred 42 people in a village west of Algiers during Tuesday night, raising fears of a new wave of barbarities in the civil war that has ravaged Algeria for more than six years.

The killings, at Tadjena inChlef province, were blamed by the government on Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas and bring the death toll from such attacks since the start of the month to more than 100. As in many previous such incidents, most of their victims had their throats slit.

In another gruesome development, workers excavating two mass graves near the capital yesterday unearthed 11 more bodies, bringing to 46 the number of corpses uncovered over the past two weeks.

El Watan, a newspaper believed to be well informed on security matters, reported that the total of those buried, in wells in an orange grove south of Algiers, could rise to more than 200. That figure pales beside the 3,000 civilians who have disappeared without trace during the past six years.

Although no one claimed responsibility last night for the latest massacre west of Algiers, the finger of suspicion inevitably pointed to the mysterious Islamic Armed Group (GIA). This body is believed to be behind the bulk of the atrocities since October 1997, when a ceasefire was declared by the military arm of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the political movement that was poised to win the general election cancelled in 1992.

Since then the FIS has condemned the outrages against the civilian population, many of them apparently directed against its sympathisers, in retaliation for their abandonment of the armed struggle.

But the picture has been clouded by witness accounts and statements by former policemen who have fled abroad, pointing towards collusion between the security forces and the killers.

During several of the worst massacres last year, the police and army were said to have stood by without intervening to help civilians or make arrests. On some occasions, the attackers were seemingly permitted to move unmolested through zones controlled by the military.

Since April, the violence had been taking on a new pattern, shifting away from set-piece slaughter to smaller attacks such as bombings of markets and random highway hold-ups. An emboldened government, meanwhile, has been declaring its offensive against the rebels was starting to yield results, and that an end to a conflict that has claimed 70,000 lives since 1992 was at last in sight.

Those claims must now be in doubt, as the country prepares with trepidation for the start, on 20 December, of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which the Islamic insurgents consider an especially suitable period for their terror attacks.

A repeat of the bloody Ramadan of 12 months ago would cast a long shadow ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for next April, in which the incumbent, Liamine Zeroual, will not stand. The authorities had been counting on the election as the moment the country would start to place its woes behind it. That seems an increasingly unlikely prospect.