Algerian rebels slaughtered in raid

Something very bloody has occurred in Algeria's "war without mercy", an unprecedented slaughter at Ain Defla, a market town a hundred miles from Algiers on the road to Chlef. A stunning success against "terrorism" if you believe the Algerian government, a massacre if you believe the "Islamists".

In Algiers, they say that all around Ain Defla, a fundamentalist stronghold below the Oarsenis mountains, doctors have been called to hospitals to deal with hundreds of dead or dying, Algerian soldiers as well as Islamist gunmen, although the authorities say that all 600 of the dead are opponents of the military-backed government.

There are, as so often in the Algerian countryside - and in the bled in which the French fought their fruitless war more than three decades ago - no independent witnesses.

But it now seems clear that a government informer working within the Islamic Armed Group, the fiercest of the Muslim insurgent movements, tipped off the authorities in Algiers of a 1,000-strong conference of Islamist militants to be held in Ain Defla and that the Algerian army ambushed their enemies with helicopter gunships and heavy artillery as they gathered for their meeting.

One rumour sweeping Algiers yesterday spoke of the razing of the entire town of Ain Defla, another of day-long pitched battles in the villages around the town, hitherto famous only as the site of the Roman city of Oppidum Novum.

What is certain is that many hundreds have died - perhaps as many as a thousand - and that the government has yet to reveal the number of army casualties.

The fighting appears to have begun a week ago when military units ambushed a group of Islamists in what the government described as a "convoy" travelling in the direction of Algiers.

Algiers newspapers have hailed the battle as the Islamists' worst defeat in an area which they have controlled for many months - in itself an admission of the insurgents' control over the Algerian countryside - and reported that helicopter gunships had pursued fleeing guerrillas into the mountains, the old highlands in which the FLN fought the French army in the 1954- 62 Algerian war of independence.

General Said Bey, the commander of Algeria's First Military Sector, personally directed the army units in the sweep at Ain Defla which has left so many dead.

Nor has the battle been the only bloodshed in Algeria over the past week. Further reports speak of the discovery of a large number of corpses in a well near the town of Boufarik, 15 miles south of Algiers. The deaths were attributed to Islamist armed groups, although no details were available on how the bodies were found nor the reason for the killings.

Attacks on motorway and railway bridges are now going on nightly, although without - so far - seriously hindering road communications and rail links in the country.

If Algerian government statements are to be taken seriously, the war against the Islamists will be concluded before presidential elections, which, according to the Algerian Foreign Minister, Mohamed Salah Dembri, will "probably" be held in December.

The military-backed government is now promising to follow the prsidentielles with parliamentary elections, the first since the poll that was cancelled more than three years ago - an election which would have been won by the Islamic Salvation Front and whose annulment led to the current war.

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