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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum