Mystery over death of Algerian terror chief

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The reported killing of Djamel Zitouni, the most ruthless of all Algeria's guerrilla leaders, has provided further evidence of upheaval within the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), whose nightmare campaign of kidnapping and decapitations has traumatised the country throughout its five-year civil war.

The death of Zitouni, who was held responsible for a bloody Air France hijacking at Algiers airport 18 months ago and the beheading of seven abducted French priests in May, was announced in an unauthenticated statement from the GIA's majlis es-shoura, or consultative council.

According to the movement, he was shot dead in an army ambush on 16 July; but the statement failed to mention that on 15 July it had issued a communique announcing Zitouni's banishment from the GIA and promising to "judge" him for his activities.

This weekend's statement is bound to raise suspicion that the GIA killed its own leader because it disagreed with his decision to murder the priests and countless other civilians.

But Zitouni's death - if it is confirmed - does not mean an end to the civil war that has claimed up to 60,000 lives. There is no official figure for the total number of casualties - including those who have died under police torture and by alleged government death- squads - but in just one week last month, 50 Algerians were listed as killed, including 16 village "guards", 10 civilians blown up by a bomb at a Blida cafe and 20 armed rebels, perhaps including Zitouni himself.

Zitouni - the 29-year old son of a chicken farmer who worked in his father's shop in the Algiers suburb of Birkhadem - originally fell under the influence of Moustapha Bouyali, the former FLN commando who was killed in an army ambush in 1987.

He went underground after the government's cancellation of a second round of democratic elections - which were sure to have been won by Islamists - in 1992. Zitouni was given command of the GIA's "Phalangists of Death" squad and became "emir" of the entire movement when its leader, Cherif Gousmi, died in October, 1994. He personally claimed responsibility for the Air France hijacking and for a wave of bomb attacks in France in the summer of 1995. He also allegedly wrote a 62-page book - possibly ghost- written by colleagues - on early fundamentalists and the "duties of holy warriors".

Nevertheless, in a war whose undercover armies - both government and insurrectionist - have sought to cause confusion among their enemies, Zitouni's death cannot be confirmed.

This weekend's statement purporting to come from the majlis es-shoura, for example, claims that a militant identified as Antar Zouabri has taken over the leadership. Yet the 15 July communique claimed that Zouabri had been thrown out of the GIA's national council following the murder of two other guerrilla leaders last year.

Zitouni's death had already been "confirmed" by the Algerian newspaper Al-Watan in March 1995, months before he organised the French bombings and more than a year before the kidnapping of the French monks.

Zitouni was as mysterious in life as he appears to be in death, dutifully following what one Algerian who knew him claimed to be a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, which urged Muslims to surround their every action in secrecy. Only one photograph of Zitouni is known to exist, but even this may be of his brother. In death as in life, it seems, he will continue to haunt Algeria.