Algerian rebels murder children

A FRESH wave of violence in Algeria at the weekend left 17 people dead, including many children, in the town of Ouzra, about 75 miles south of Algiers.

Described as the worst incident since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected in April, it came just weeks before a promised referendum aiming to establish peace and end the Islamic insurgency that has killed up to 100,000 people in the past seven years. Muslim rebels reportedly stormed an isolated house and slashed the throats of 14 children at a party to mark a boy's circumcision on Friday night, local residents said.

The five rebels, wearing army uniforms, also bombed a nearby building, seriously wounding five other people, then fled from near Ouzra in Medea province. "The terrorists slaughtered all the children inside the house," said one resident.

The children were attending a traditional party on the occasion of the Muslim circumcision of one of them. They could not give the exact ages of the children, but said most of them were under 10.

It was not clear if the five wounded in the bomb blastwere related to the dead children."The two places of this crime are isolated," another resident said.

Medea province is a stronghold of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), Algeria's most radical faction, which has fought for more than seven years of conflict to topple the largely secular government.

"Security forces, accompanied by civilian relief services, rushed to the scene to provide necessary assistance to victims of this criminal act," the Algerian security forces said in a statement carried by the official APS news agency.

The authorities blame recurring violence on Islamic insurgents, who have been fighting to topple the government since 1992.

It was in that year that the military-backed authorities cancelled elections that the main Islamist party, the National Islamic Front, was poised to win.

The latest wave of massacres comes after President Bouteflika called a national referendum for September 16 on a peace blueprint aimed at ending the Islamic insurgency.

Since his election in April, the President has taken steps to end the conflict, including an official acknowledgment that it has involved the deaths of 100,000 people. The Medea region is considered to be the stronghold of Armed Islamic Group, Algeria's most radical fundamentalist faction, which has been fighting for more than seven years to bring down the government.

GIA leader Antar Zouabrihas repeatedly rejected President Bouteflika's policies and the GIA has taken credit for many massacres since the Islamic insurgency began.

In next month's poll Algerians will be asked: "Do you agree with the general approach taken by the President to bring about peace and civil reconciliation?"

An overwhelming Yes vote would provide a welcome boost to President Bouteflika after his legitimacy was undermined in the presidential elections when his opponents withdrew alleging fraud.

Last week, Algerian security forces said Islamist militants had killed 29 people in the western Bechar region.

Algerian newspapers reported at the weekend that Islamic militants had massacred seven people, mostly civilians, last Thursday in two separate attacks.

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