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Families of Algerian police hit by bomber

Algiers - The bomber left, crying "Allahu Akbar" - God is Great. Five minutes later, at 5.38am, his Peugeot 504 blew up in a massive explosion that tore down the front wall of the police family residence in Kouba, the softest target you could find in Algiers. "There used to be two policemen on guard duty," one of the off-duty policemen said afterwards as his wife and daughter tried to clear the rubble from their apartment. "But they were both assassinated last year - since then, there hasn't been a guard on our buildings."

The bomber had parked his car immediately below the centre of the five- storey block and was seen climbing into another car and driving away, shouting his final taunt as he left. But no one had time to run from the building.

Most of the residents were asleep and those who realised what was happening remember only that the bomb exploded at the very moment that the muezzin began his call to prayer at the Kouba mosque.

The explosives were obviously intended to bring down the building but instead smashed the facade, showering glass and splinters on to the families inside. Most of the 63 wounded were women and children, the youngest a baby only one year old, but, according to a government statement, there were no deaths.

It was the same old story: a carefully planned attack - as careful as Thursday's ambush on an Algerian gendarmerie patrol near Blida - was made against an easy target which the authorities had not bothered to defend, apparently on the distinctly odd grounds that no one would want to kill so many civilians, even though they were relatives of policemen. This was the sentiment gently expressed by Aissa Kasmi of Algeria's General Security Directorate as he crunched through broken concrete outside the apartment block yesterday afternoon. "Our feeling is that the people who live in this complex, being women and children, are the soul of Algeria, innocents - and by putting guards on them, we would have made them a target."

Several policemen caught by the blast refused to leave their homes, their hands and faces bandaged, their faces stunned and angry. Their wives and children stood on their broken balconies, watching the bulldozers prowl through the rubble and the masked policemen who turned up to look at the tiny fragments of intricately scrolled metal that were all that was left of the Peugeot. "There's nothing to find of the car - not even the engine block - so how can we trace where it came from?" a detective asked irritably.

"The goal of the attack was obvious," said Mr Kasmi, a bald, oval-faced man who contradicted all the normal habits of the Algiers constabulary by positively courting reporters' attention.

"These criminals are motivated by cowardice. This building was easy prey, the easiest target you could find. The terrorists are on the run in the country, so they have come into the city. But they are digging their own grave. The people of Algiers will come here and see what has happened and be furious. They will see how these terrorists waste the state's money by destroying these houses and attacking these innocents."

It was an eloquent little speech which left out a few pertinent facts. The first of these was that the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) had undoubtedly sent some of their men to take a look at their handiwork, which may be why some of the youths who were watching the bulldozers yesterday afternoon did not look as shocked or horrified or angry as Mr Kasmi might have wished. One or two of them looked on with something approaching satisfaction. The second problem in his speech concerned the small matter of motive, which was surely part of the continuing campaign to break the morale of the security forces by assaulting not only the policemen and the gendarmerie but also those they love. Over the past two years, individual police families have been shot or had their throats cut, but there has never been a bombing on this scale directed at the relatives of policemen.

It was instructive to watch the members of the Algerian security forces as they turned up at the bomb scene yesterday. There were gendarmerie men in green uniforms and ski-masks and city traffic policemen in blue uniforms and white braid and another, rarely seen, species, dressed all in black, with crimson bandoliers and black hoods with slits for the eyes and mouth, who hung around the outside of the crowds. And then, of course, there were the half-dressed policemen who had been asleep in the building which the government thought would never be attacked, even though it was "the easiest target".

For hours after the bomb, which could be heard all over the city of Algiers, state radio refrained from reporting the incident, even though the ambulances carrying the injured to the Mustapha hospital could be seen racing through the empty Friday streets. And while civil- defence workers were clearing the wreckage yesterday morning, there came the sound of another distant explosion which had the police turning their heads to their radios. "We don't know what it is yet," one of them said. By nightfall, no one had told us.

It was rumoured, however, that the GIA had on Thursday warned that it would target "the wives of policemen" if "Islamist" women held in Algerian prisons were not immediately released. Hundreds of women have been detained by the security police over the past three years and the GIA have made great use of the detailed and consistent and grimly convincing reports of their torture and rape in police stations in Algiers and other cities.

Yesterday's bomb therefore appeared to be their response, another step up the Algerian ladder of horror which both sides are now climbing at ever greater speed.