Islamists promise Algerian elite a bloody Ramadan

The war against educated men and women is reminiscent of Khmer Rouge ki llings in Cambodia - and the power of the gunmen is growing by the day. Robert Fisk reports
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The Independent Online
Algeria's Islamists are to launch a bloody Ramadan offensive against the government and army, of which Monday night's savage car bomb in the centre of the capital - which killed 40 people and wounded 256 - was the opening salvo.

The Islamic Salvation Army (ISA), military wing of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), has urged its ``mujahedin" to intensify attacks against "apostates and their henchmen", a grim reference to the journalists, doctors, intellectuals and former independence war heroes now regarded as legitimate targets in the war against the military-backed regime.

In the most recent and ferocious murder, gunmen came to the home of Salah Zoubar, a veteran of the 1956-62 National Liberation Front, near Chlef in western Algeria, kidnapped his 24-year-old daughter and three sons - the youngest 13 - and shot all of them in the head.

Last week, another Frenchman, the 26th assassinated since September 1993, was shot in central Algiers. Even the United States, which has been vainly urging a dialogue between the government and Islamist militants, has warned its citizens to leave the country at once.

Islamists regularly blame security services for bombings and assassinations, but there seems little doubt Monday's carnage was the work of an Islamist group.

There were reports in Algiers that the Fiat containing the explosives, stolen in the fundamentalist Larbaa area of the city, may have been driven by a suicide bomber. That would be the first time self-immolation, a standard weapon of Muslim militants in Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories, has been used in Algeria. The previous car to explode in Algiers had contained not only a bomb but two assassinated young men, their bodies attached to detonators.

Monday's bomb was set off outside the police headquarters in Amrouche Street - a gaunt, four-storey building in whose dungeons many Islamists claim they have been stripped and tortured. It exploded as hundreds were buying food before the start today of the Ramadan month of fasting. The Mustapha hospital, many of whose medical staff are regarded by the government as Islamist supporters, appealed desperately for blood donations as doctors realised the scale of the attack. Many of the 256 hurt lost limbs.

Last year, Ramadan was used by armed groups in Algeria as a rallying call for further anti-government offensives, leading to the storming of a prison and a military barracks. This week, issue No 33 of the Islamic Salvation Army's broadsheet El-Feth El-Moubine (Brilliant Victory) says the ISA's operations "will affect the capital" - perhaps a reference to the car bombing - and promises supporters "a great battle, by the grace of God". Carry on, you mujahedin [warriors] and remember God's goodness, fight the apostates and their henchmen. Have no fear and . . . don't be troubled if the tyrant overwhelms you because he has promised that you will go to paradise."

Almost exactly a year ago, the newly installed president, General Liamine Zeroual, promised an end to the war and hinted at negotiations with the more moderate members of the FIS, the party that would have won the second round of elections three years ago if the authorities had not cancelled the poll. His supporters called Zeroual the last-chance president, but his rule has been marked by such steadily increasing violence that at least 30,000 - perhaps 40,000 - Algerians have died in what is turning into a full-scale civil war.

Although the president agreed to move two FIS leaders from prison to house arrest, no real dialogue emerged and within months a clique of army officers, known as "the eradicators", decided only military action could end the conflict.

Death squads, shoot-to-kill raids and police torture increased the cruelty of the war on both sides. When FIS leaders and members of legal government parties met in Rome this month to construct a modus vivendi for future national elections, President Zeroual shrugged off their efforts and called instead for new presidential elections - a project which, given the large tracts of Algeria in Islamist hands, would appear to be impossible.

More serious is the growing power Islamist gunmen have on the capital's streets. Men and women report that militants are boarding buses on scheduled city routes to demand identity papers from passengers: documents showing the holders to be government officials or journalists or doctors prove fatal. Such passengers are taken from the bus and murdered.

"For a long time, we've suffered from `false' police checkpoints demanding our papers at night around the city," an Algerian woman said at the weekend. "Now we see them during the day. In the past, they would have been attacked by the security forces butwhen we were stopped by real policemen the other day, the gendarmes just told us to avoid a neighbouring street because there were faux barrages [false checkpoints] there. They did nothing else."

Nowhere outside Algeria is the war being studied more anxiously than in Egypt, which has just endured its bloodiest weekend of gun battles between government and Islamic militants in three years. If the Algerian government collapses, Egyptians are asking, how soon before their own regime slides into chaos?

In Algeria, the war against intellectuals - any men and women of education - is beginning, more and more, to resemble not so much an Islamic uprising but a Khmer Rouge-style slaughter of the elite.