Survivors tell of worst Algeria massacre

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Gangs armed with knives, axes, hoes and shovels methodically slaughtered more than 400 peasants in four poor villages in western Algeria, the worst massacre in six years of Muslim fundamentalist insurgency.

"We're almost done here," a gang leader was heard saying on a walkie- talkie during the killings in the hillside villages on the first night of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Survivors of last Tuesday's attack, first reported in the Algerian media yesterday, said they fled into the darkness while the gangs stabbed, hacked and mutilated their victims.

The massacre took place just as the inhabitants of the hamlets around the town of Relizane, 180 miles west of Algiers, were breaking their daily Ramadan fast at sunset. Until dawn the next morning the militants slit people's throats, cut off their heads and beat children to death against walls, villagers said. The total death toll of 412 was first reported by the independent daily Liberte. Government radio reported 78 villagers killed and 68 wounded, but official figures are usually low, to downplay the seriousness of the militants' attacks.

The aftermath of Tuesday night's slaughter showed how the gangs rounded up victims before killing them. "I pulled out 50 mutilated bodies from one house, and 30 from another," said Hadj Mohammed, a villager in Khourba, home to 200 families.

Rescue workers stitched victims' wounds or quickly buried bodies in accordance with Muslim law. "I can't get rid of the smell of blood," said a nurse, her blouse splattered, before breaking out in tears.

Many survivors planned to move to the nearby port of Oran. "Leaving is better than dying," said Amar Meziani. "I'm leaving everything here, my house, crops, what's left of my livestock. To go where? I don't know, but I can't stay here. I'm too old to carry a weapon. I'll return when it's calm."

Villagers said the gangs wore baggy grey Afghan-style trousers - the sign of the most violent insurgents. The fighters are reputed to have learned their tactics during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but suspicion fell on the Armed Islamic Group, known by its French initials as the GIA, the most militant opponents of President Liamine Zeroual's military-backed government. The insurgency, which has left more than 75,000 dead, has intensified each year at Ramadan. President Zeroual insists the continuing violence is only "residual terrorism", while the army attacked rural militant strongholds.

The conflict began after January 1992 when the government cancelled second- round legislative elections which the Islamic Salvation Front was expected to win. Until last week the two biggest massacres had been last August in villages south of Algiers, a region often hit by the GIA. About 250 people were killed at Bentalha, and between 200 and 300 people died days later in the village of Raisi.