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Insurgent ambush 'kills 24 Algerian police'

Insurgents killed 24 Algerian paramilitary police in an ambush on their convoy yesterday evening, a local newspaper reported today.

The ambush, if confirmed, would be the deadliest single attack in months in Algeria, a major oil and gas exporter fighting Islamist militants allied to the al Qaeda network.

Two Algerian security sources, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters there had been an ambush and more than 20 paramilitary police had been killed.

The Echorouk newspaper cited security sources and local people as saying the ambush took place at about 8pm on a stretch of highway between the settlements of El Meher and El Mansourah, about 110 miles east of the capital.

It said the attackers first activated two improvised explosive devices and then opened fire on the convoy. The insurgents left taking arms, weapons and six police off-road vehicles, said the newspaper.

There was no official confirmation of the attack. Algerian authorities often do not isue any formal comment when security personnal have been killed in insurgent attacks.

Algeria, which lies across the Mediterranean from Europe, has been struggling for nearly two decades to get to grips with Islamist insurgents who now operate under the banner of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Security crackdowns and a campaign to persuade the militants to lay down their arms have led to an overall decline in the number of attacks, but there has been an upsurge in violence over the past few weeks.

Insurgents killed five paramilitary gendarmes late in May and a week later shot dead nine soldiers. At the start of this month AQIM killed a British man, Edwin Dyer, after holding him hostage in neighbouring Mali.

Though the group has not targeted oil and gas infrastructure in Algeria, international energy firms - which include BP, StatoilHydro, Repsol and Total - operate under heavy security.

Diplomats say the violence also has the potential to spill over into Europe, where AQIM has a network of undercover cells providing logistical support.

The newspaper report said Wednesday's ambush was carried out on the N5 highway, a major route linking the capital, Algiers, to cities in the east of Algeria.

It said the paramilitary police who came under attack had been assigned to guard a group of Chinese construction workers building a new east-west road link across Algeria. It did not say if any of the workers had been hurt in the attack.

The ambush was a demonstration by a weakened al Qaeda that it is still a threat, said Rachid Ould Bousseafa, the deputy editor of the Echorouk newspaper who writes on security issues.

"Make no mistake: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is declining," he told Reuters. But he said: "Al Qaeda wanted to send a strong message that it is capable of planning and executing a big attack."