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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."