INSIDE ALGERIA : Massacre marks new low point in Algerian war

Algiers - We were sitting in the mess at Harrache when the first explosion changed the air pressure in the room. The commandant looked at his colleague, then at us. "It's not a bomb," he said with absolute confidence. Then there was a second clap of sound and the corporal at the window said: "Bomb." On the table, the military radio crackled into a mixture of French and machine-gun-speed Algerian Arabic. "A fourth explosion!" - "A fifth!" From all over the city of Algiers, the gendarmes were reporting what they could hear. The air pressure changed again and the commandant stood up and put his kepi on. Then the radio told him what he wanted to hear. "It's a security forces operation at Sidi Moussa."

In the warm winter sunshine outside the barracks, the blast of rocket- propelled grenades was unmistakable. "The security forces have a terrorist group surrounded," the commandant said. Several gendarmes had gathered in the barrack square, all looking south-west towards the village of Sidi Moussa, invisible through the pale heat haze below the mountains. Algeria's war was out of sight but not out of mind; and certainly not out of earshot. Three motor-cycle cops - back on the roads these past four months for the first time in more than four years - roared into the compound. "Things have improved," the commandant insisted. "Only a few months ago, all our men would have to have been in armoured vehicles."

But from the villages beyond Sidi Moussa, on the road from Larba to Tablat, terrible stories are emerging, more frightful than any that have yet come out of Algeria's secret war. The Islamic Armed Group (GIA), one rumour says, moved into the villages on the Col des Deux Bassins - on the steep hillsides of the Mitidja - and cut the throats of up to a hundred men, women and children at the weekend. "The government doesn't want the news out yet because it will cast a bad reflection on last week's constitutional referendum," an Algerian businessman had told us two hours earlier. "This is the most savage crime I have ever heard of." If true, it would be the most horrible atrocity yet committed in the Algerian war, worse than this month's throat-cutting at Sidi el-Kebir, comparable to the epic massacres of the 1954-62 war of independence against France.

But is it true? Not a word has appeared in the government-controlled press, save for a dramatic account - third-person and with no quoted eyewitnesses - of the "liquidation" of a GIA unit of 12 men near Ghardaia. Ouled Abderbi, the district "emir" of the GIA group in the "wilaya" (governerate) of Ghardaia, had been "annihilated", according to Le Matin. The throat-cutters who had savaged the villagers of Bouferkine were no more. No prisoners. It was a familiar story.

And when we asked the commandant about reports of the Col des Deux Bassins massacre, he raised his eyebrows. "We received information that four men from Sonagaz [the Algerian state gas company] had their throats cut around there. Nothing more." But even among the Algiers gendarmerie, the barbarism of this war comes through. Just in passing, the commandant mentions to us that the "Islamists ", "thieves as much as terrorists," he calls them - have run short of ammunition. "We find their Kalashnikovs and lots of [Israeli-made] Uzi automatic weapons, but no bullets," he says. Could that be, I ask, why they cut so many throats, to save ammunition? The commandant leans across the table and points at me. "Exactly," he replies. And then - another aside, a passing comment - he adds: "They don't only use knives to cut throats now. They are using saws, wood-cutters' saws, to cut the throats of their prisoners."

"Don't believe the stories that the GIA has been infiltrated," another officer says. "If it had been, we would have won the war by now. A year ago, at the presidential elections, they pardoned about 1000 prisoners and let them out of jail. Many were intimidated back into the GIA. They've just freed another 60 or so men and we've been told to keep an eye on them. But they live outside Blida and it's hard enough to get into some of those places, let alone watch the guys we want to watch."

Back in the capital, the stories start again. There are another 21 dead civilians in a village south of the capital, an Algerian journalist says. Another 11 people were slaughtered in Baraki at the weekend. At least one GIA group is retreating through the Mitidja hills, setting mines behind them.

And I remember what the commandant said as we sipped coffee in his mess. "I saw a schoolgirl in the Blida morgue who had had her throat cut. I don't know if it's true what they said, that her murderers cut "GIA" on her hand. I didn't see her hands. But I saw her head. They had almost completely severed it from her body."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Graduate Media Assistant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an ambitious and adaptable...

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Guru Careers: Software Engineer / Software Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software Engineer / Softw...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before