Priests killed in Algeria after hijack rescue

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Islamic fundamentalists killed four Catholic priests in the Algerian town of Tizi-Ouzu yesterday, a day after French gendarmes stormed a hijacked Air France airliner at Marseilles and shot dead four guerrillas.

The priests, three French and one Belgian, were cut down by automatic fire in the town, 60 miles east of Algiers. The French Foreign Ministry, condemning "this odious crime", repeated its call for French nationals to leave Algeria. France was "deeply shocked and upset by this new act of barbarism".

The murders, on the heels of the Air France hijacking, emphasised the constant danger which the de facto civil war in Algeria represents for France.

Yesterday, police said a search of the airliner had revealed 20 sticks of dynamite. Previously, the hijackers were reported only to have four automatic weapons. The presence of explosives seemed to lend weight to theories that the hijackers, dressed as Air Algerie ground staff, benefited from inside help at Houari Boumediene airport.

Officials also said the hijackers who recited Muslim prayers to prepare for death just before the gendarmes stormed the plane at dusk had discussed crashing the plane on to Paris. Algerian passengers said that the hijackers became nervous as the French authorities prevaricated over their request to refuel aircraft for an onward flight to Paris.

"When they began chanting verses preparing for death over the loudspeakers, we knew the situation was dangerous," one passenger said.

At the same time, another passenger added, they saw the black-uniformed gendarmes rushing up the steps. "I was sure my last moment had come," he said.

The three murdered French priests were named by the Bishop of Algiers as Christian Cheissel, 36, Jean Chevillard, 69, and Alain Dieulangard, 75. The Belgian was Charles Deckers, 70.

Their deaths brought to 76 the number of foreigners killed since the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) announced a campaign to drive foreigners from Algiers 15 months ago.The total French death toll now stands at 26.

The priests were from the White Fathers' order, set up in Algeria in 1868 to spread the Gospel and halt slavery in North Africa.

As the operation to free the passengers in Marseilles was hailed in France as a success, with messages of congratulation from Algeria, Israel and the US. It was also seen as a boost for Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, who is expected to stand as a candidate in next spring's presidential elections.