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Murder of Hamas sheikh suits each side in Algerian tragedy: Robert Fisk reports from Blida on the mystery surrounding the abduction and killing of a popular Islamic leader

THE POLICEMEN wore hoods and carried automatic rifles. The walls were spray-painted with 'FIS', the acronym of the Islamic Salvation Front. And the body of Sheikh Mohamed Bouslimani - two months in a mountain grave before his corpse was discovered - reeked of formaldehyde yesterday as it lay, wrapped in a brown and yellow blanket, in the neat, French- colonial town square beneath the Atlas mountains.

Sitting on the floor of the single- storey family home, up in the foothills above the plain of the Mitidja, his 84-year-old mother Zohra, tears gleaming on wrinkled cheeks behind old spectacles, tried to understand why her son had been murdered. 'Thank God I was able to see him in the hospital and able to kiss him,' she said. 'I hope we will see him in paradise. He was an obedient son. It was God in His mercy who gave him to us and God in His mercy who took him away from me. I must accept this.'

In Algeria these days, acceptance - of kidnapping, murder, death - is something of a way of life. But who did kill Mohamed Bouslimani? Who would want to kidnap and then assassinate a professor of Arabic who was leader of Algeria's 'Guidance and Renewal' charity, who only last year travelled to Sarajevo and brought back dozens of wounded Bosnian Muslims to recover in Algeria?

'The hand of traitors took him away,' was the explanation of Sheikh Mahfoud Nahna, leader of the tiny Islamic Hamas party of which Bouslimani was a founder member, as he preached in that small colonial square, weeping before 8,000 mourners. And in an ironic way, that one word - traitors - more or less summed up the tragedy of Algeria yesterday.

For who are the traitors here? The murderers, certainly; the four men who took the balding, bearded sheikh from his villa on 25 November and allowed him just one brief telephone call to his family a few days later before silencing him forever. In the study of his home yesterday, we could see the religious books he was reading when called to the front door, and the telephone line - now reconnected with black masking tape - that the kidnappers cut before they took the sheikh away in his own battered Renault car. Just for a chat, a few words, nothing to worry about, they told his wife Goussem. He would be back soon. The usual tale.

Amid the hundreds of white-scarved women who sat below the eucalyptus trees in the ramshackle slum where Sheikh Bouslimani lived, an old friend recounted the inevitable. 'They let him make just one telephone call. His family asked, 'Who is holding you?' and he was silent. Then they heard a voice in the background saying 'Tell them it's the GIA (Armed Islamic Group)'. Then he said: 'You heard.' His family asked the sheikh how he was, and he replied: 'Sometimes you have to thank God, even in the worst of situations.' And that was the last anyone heard of him.'

But not the last that was seen. Ten days before Algeria's hopeless 'national conference' was held last week to resolve the country's crisis, a rumour spread that the sheikh's body had been found high in the mountains, buried beside trees near a cemetery at El Affroun. No more was said until the conference, which Hamas briefly attended but which was boycotted by all big political groups - including the banned FIS - came to an end. At which point the Algerian authorities suddenly announced that the sheikh's remains had indeed been found on the mountainside. And, with almost the same breath, two men suspected of his kidnapping - Guitoun Nacer and Rashid Zerani - had been arrested. The two, it was said, had been ordered by Djafaar el-Afghani, a FIS member who allegedly helps lead the GIA, to abduct the sheikh in order to persuade Hamas to boycott the conference.

The Algerian government is happy to blame the FIS for all the country's miseries. Tens of thousands of Islamic militants - and members of the armed 'Islamists' who are now at war with the government - live in Blida. That is why its walls are covered with FIS slogans. That is why the town's young men watch foreigners with the deepest suspicion. And that is why the paramilitary police, clad in dirty khaki and fingering Kalashni kovs, stood in the streets around us yesterday wearing woollen hoods, sacks with slits just wide enough for eyes to observe and orders to be shouted. Down the road, a spray of bullet holes up the gable of an apartment block and a partially burnt school told their own story.

But there were friends of the sheikh - schoolfriends from his days at the Blida lycee where he taught Arabic - who were suspicious of the story. 'All of a sudden, the government finds the body and the culprits just after the conference ends,' a Hamas member said.

'What am I supposed to think of this? Hamas is more moderate than the FIS, but there are sympathisers of the FIS in our party. So why should the FIS kill him? . . . I'd like to hear the FIS denounce this murder; I would like to hear them say it wasn't them. But there are those who say that the government wants to kill off Hamas - he is the second leader to be murdered - so that they can have an open war between the army and the FIS. And there are other parties like the Culture and Democracy Party (RCD) who don't want to see any party like Hamas because it shows that Islam can be human and moderate. My suspicion is simple: everyone was ready to see the sheikh killed.'

Civil war Beirut used to produce such conspiracy theories. People die when everyone finds that it is in their interest. The FIS have lost a moderate opponent, the authorities have been able to blame the FIS, while those who have no truck with religion in Algerian politics no longer have the annoyingly popular Bouslimani to contend with. But the sheikh was a popular man in Blida and his funeral yesterday in the shadow of the ice-sheathed mountains was a dolorous, dignified affair. Mourners wept themselves into unconsciousness, swoo ning into the arms of their friends, as Sheikh Nahna announced that Bouslimani 'did everything for the soil of Algeria and now the soil of Algeria is taking him back'.

Bouslimani had no children - his brother died in the war against the French during which the sheikh himself was imprisoned for five years - but he and Goussem had been bringing up a sister's daughter as their own. Asma lay weeping in front of her adopted mother yesterday afternoon, wringing her hands in grief as the body was taken for burial in the town below the the family's poor suburb of Sidi el-Kebir. The broken-down hamlet is named after the 16th-century founder of Blida, Ahmed el- Kebir, who brought with him from Spain the Arabs of Andalusia - irrigators of fields and planters of orange orchards - long before the French arrived to colonise a nation whose tragedy has still not ended.