Algerian killings hit 'oasis of peace'

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Middle East Correspondent

The victims' nationalities must have pleased their killers - a Briton, two Frenchmen and a Canadian would have satisfied their desire to strike at the "Crusader" nations whom the "Islamists" have declared to be their enemies. The murder, too, of the westerners' Tunisian colleague and their Algerian security guard would have ensured that Arabs remained under no illusions about the aims of the Islamic Armed Group (GIA).

Anyone who works for the Algerian government is a target and yesterday, in the sleepy old Foreign Legion town of Ghardaia, the GIA proved it again.

According to Algerian press agency reports, gunmen broke into the heavily- guarded factory where the foreigners worked and coldly shot them down with rifle fire. All were working on an irrigation pipe project when the Islamists arrived, murdering the officer in charge of the armed military escort before turning their weapons on the foreigners.

The Briton's name was Alan Wilson. The official Algerian Press Service said that Jim McGarry, a Canadian, Franois Machabert and Jean-Claude Cordjon, both French, and Mustapha Zemirli, a Tunisian, were also killed. Mr McGarry and Mr Wilson both lived in Edinburgh.

Reports that four more troops were wounded in what the agency described as an "assault" suggests that a gun battle preceded the murders and that the Algerian security men fought hard against their attackers at the Anabib pipe factory, a nationalised concern. The Algerians have been trying to coax foreign firms into new investments over the past six months in an attempt to cut the country's massive foreign debt.

Only two months ago, the Algerians were inviting foreign journalists to spend a quiet day at Ghardaia. A tourist resort 500 miles south of Algiers, it was the kind of place where no foreigner would be harmed, a refuge from the violence in the north.

Yesterday even that fragile security disappeared. Quite apart from the personal tragedy to the families of the victims, it was a savage blow to the Algerian government. Still boasting of the army's victory over its armed Muslim opponents at Ein Delfa last March - in which up to 3,000 Islamists are said to have been killed - President Liamine Zeroual's cabinet could not have expected its enemies to strike at the soft underbelly of the country's economy where Algeria's oil, gas and water industries lay comparatively untouched by the war that has killed up to 40,000.

No doubt realising that the country's energy reserves would be the mainstay of Algeria's economy after an Islamist take-over, the armed groups have so far left gas and oil installations alone. The Algerian army and police placed dozens of guards on foreigners working in the industry but hoped that Ghardaia and other southern towns would be exempt from the war along the coastal plain.

The French government has once more urged its citizens to leave Algeria. A foreign ministry spokesman in Paris condemned what he called "this criminal act" and demanded that the Algerian authorities make available all information on the murders to the government in Paris.

Just 24 hours earlier, the Algerians announced the killing of five leaders of the Islamist groups in further fighting - proof, they hoped, of the army's continued success against its Muslim enemies.

Mr Wilson was the second Briton to be killed in Algeria - the first was murdered last year after stopping his car at a country petrol station - and brings to 80 the number of foreigners killed since September 1993, the largest number being from France.