Algerians braced for new wave of terror

Islamist rebels raise stakes in fight to topple government. Robert Fisk reports

Algerians are facing 58 very bloody days. They know the statistics all too well because - exactly two months before last year's constitutional referendum - the country's armed Islamists went on an orgy of killing in the villages outside Algiers. Now, two months before the parliamentary elections - in which the largest opposition party, the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), cannot run - the slaughter has begun again.

Last week, the FIS, which was declared illegal after its success in 1991 elections, urged voters to boycott the polling booths on 5 June. And that, as one Algerian journalist commented coldly, convinced many that blood would soon run again.

They were right. As the death toll in the latest and most obscene of Algeria's civil war bloodbaths climbed to 84 after the mass killings south of Algiers, there is a mood of chilling indifference in the streets of the capital. The daily newspapers are not short of details: at least 15 men, women and children decapitated in the village of Amroussa, some with chainsaws; another 52, including more women and children, left with their throats cut or doused in petrol and left to burn to death, in Thalit; more dead in Harbil, Bouira and Sidi Naamane. In Algiers, however, the talk is all about the "100 terrorists" killed by security forces in the great mountain battles outside Tizi Ouzou.

It is a mirage unlikely to last. How many times has the government told the people that the "war against terrorism" is almost won, that the last "terrorists" - official nomenclature for members of the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) - are putting up a last effort before liquidation?

Many of those killed in the weekend slaughters were relatives of the the so-called self-defence units which the government has armed in the countryside to fight the guerrillas. Yet again, therefore, their wives and children and parents are paying the price for their allegiance to the "pouvoir".

According to some reports, the Islamists staged a false attack to draw pro-government militiamen out of their villages - leaving their loved ones at the mercy of the killers. Only one local Algerian reporter, from the daily Liberte, reached the site of a massacre - at Amroussa - where survivors told him that Antar Zouabri, who took over the leadership of the GIA when Jamal Zeitouni was killed last July, personally led the attack.

True, the army and air force are continuing their campaign against the guerrillas in the Kabylie mountains; hence the stories of "100 terrorists" killed. But despite the use of armour and helicopter gunships, the military has apparently still not been able to penetrate all of the densely forested gorges of the mountains where the GIA has defended itself with mines and booby-traps. And the FIS is still claiming that the GIA has been infiltrated by the government and that the dreadful deeds done in the name of Islam are in part perpetrated by the authorities in an attempt to turn the people against the guerrillas.

This explanation fails to address the fact that each new atrocity saps government credibility - why would Algeria's military intelligence service wish to destroy the claim by its own generals that they can crush "terrorism"? But it also remains a fact that remarkably few Algerian reporters have been able to visit the scenes of such horror to investigate the incidents. No journalist, it seems, has reached Thalit, Harbil or Sidi Naamane. Thalit, indeed, is barely a village, a mere collection of semi-derelict houses in the countryside that now have - if the figures are to be believed - scarcely a single surviving inhabitant.

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