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Algerian rebel group claims assassination

The message came from the Algerian Jihad Islamic Front - loosely associated to the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) that stood to win 1992's cancelled Algerian elections - and it was as was chilling as it was boastful.

"The Mujahedin in the cause of Allah in Algeria have lately executed a brilliant military operation against a notorious enemy of Islam and Muslims - the late Abdelhaq Benhamouda, a prominent Communist Union leader, killing him and his two bodyguards, praise be to Allah!"

Benhamouda, a secular enemy of Algeria's Islamist opposition, was indeed shot dead in a central Algerian square. A personal friend and adviser to President Liamine Zeroual, his assassination had originally been blamed on the more extreme Armed Islamic Group (GIA).

But Benhamouda was a political enemy of the FIS and the communique of the armed group makes no secret of its responsibility.

"The efficiency and 'professionalism' of the operation has startled the enemy," it says. "Fear has taken possession of their feelings. The junta generals and their acolytes were sobbing during Benhamouda's burial and broke into tears."

Tears, of course, have become an over-used currency in the latest stage of Algeria's war. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan - marked by a bloodbath of throat-cuttings, beheadings, car bombs and even baby-strangling - cost the lives of at least 300 people, almost all civilians, many of them women.

With the prime minister himself admitting at least 80,000 dead since 1992 - the real figure may be nearer 100,000 - President Zeroual's promise of early elections has offered little real hope of an end to the slaughter. Although legislative elections are to be held on 29 May and 5 June, the FIS will not be allowed to participate; the new constitution bans all parties based on religion, but those Islamic groups which support the government will be allowed to take part in the elections - under a different name.

The president's promise to "eradicate" the armed Islamist groups has been followed by a major military offensive this week against rebels in the Tamesguida district, a wild and hilly area in the north-eastern Medea province where - if the Algerian press are to be believed - up to 60 Islamists were killed.

For several months, the government has been relying on "self-defence" units made up of local villagers to combat the Islamists - it is principally their families who have been subjected to the wave of throat-cuttings - but this week the Algerian army was once again sent into action.

Helicopter gunships were used to fire rockets into the forests of Medea as part of the latest offensive, the first wholesale military operation since an attack on Islamists around Ein Defla two years ago. Since 24 January, 170 guerrillas have been killed, according to President Zeroual.

The FIS, however, continues to hold the authorities responsible for the slaughter in the villages south of Algiers, claiming that the GIA has been infiltrated by the Algerian intelligence services who are provoking the massacres.

The printed admission of Benhamouda's murder - in a newsletter which regularly demands the release from captivity of the three FIS leaders, Abassi Madani, Ali Belhaj and Abdelkader Hashani - says that the authorities "want us to believe that Mujahedin are only capable of mass killings, 'barbaric' massacres: car bombing, throat-cuttings, women's breasts and the cutting of men's testicles and all sorts of body mutilations ...

"Everyone knows that these atrocious crimes are taking place in pro-Islamic areas, in Blida, Medea and Algiers suburbs, against natural supporters of the Islamic Movement ...

"These crimes are the work of the secret service and the militias whose recruits are paranoid drug addicts ..."

But there is no doubt from this message that the horrors inflicted on civilians in the name of Islam are rubbing off on the FIS as well as the GIA.

"It is forbidden, in Islam, to kill innocents, women, children and the elderly, to mutilate or torture," the statement goes on, adding that "the Mujahedin disavowed, again and again, these unlawful and un-Islamic acts".