On patrol with faceless gendarmes

In streets lost to the government, spotters for the Islamist killers are everywhere INSIDE ALGERIA

Bab el-Oued, Algiers - Commandant Mohamed of the Algiers Gendarmerie studied the graffiti with indifference. Children played in the mud and sewage by the roadside, and dirt had sprayed onto the windows of his armoured Toyota but the words were clear: "The gendarmes and the police are infidels." The commandant shrugged. "We're used to it," he muttered. His comrades, most of them in ski-masks and black hoods, ignored the graffiti. It was the least of their worries.

Through the poverty of Algiers we drove in a crocodile of green and white land cruisers, Kalashnikovs pointed from the doors of the rear vehicles, between crowds of young men, sometimes hundreds of them who stood in the ordure and garbage that lay piled along the tracks through Chateau Rouge, Cherarba, Gaid Gassem, Eucalyptus, Houaoura. Sometimes we broke into open country, the 15 gendarmes in their green paramilitary uniforms running into the orange orchards around Blida to search young men at gun point - very young men most of them, hands high, faces filled with terror, the muzzles of assault rifles caressing the backs of their necks.

In the filth of Guy de Constantine, we waded ankle deep through rotting cloth and scrap metal as the gendarmes pursued two other young men who were brought back from the banks of a stinking river with their hands in the air. They were neither beaten nor insulted, but would have been dead if they had moved. Commandant Mohamed looked through their papers as one of his men walked up with a belt-fed machine gun under his arm. "It's OK," he said softly to one of them. "Get going, you were just scared. I understand." And he touched the boy on the shoulder with his hand. We stood there panting with the exertion, the gendarmes in their flak jackets, eyes black and narrow through the slits in their ski-masks. "Go fast, move," the commandant said quietly into his Motorola radio when we had reboarded. "We never leave by the route we came by in case they've prepared an ambush or a bomb for us."

We drove gingerly past a vast crater between the walls of slums, a gas canister of explosives directed at another patrol, Commandant Mohamed an inverted tourist guide, pointing out places of dangerous attraction, two gutted supermarkets, a burned-out gas factory, a row of carbonised trucks belonging to a government cooperative, a wrecked school with shattered windows. Once we passed an entire railway train, its row of silver carriages burned and twisted in a siding. "That's where we shot two terrorists," the Commandant said as we passed a grocery store. "Yesterday we shot one in Berkhadem. He had an automatic pistol on him."

Because of their ski-masks and black hoods, the people of Algiers long ago named Commandant Mohamed's men the "Ninjas" - it was not said in admiration but the gendarmes like the title - and there is little doubt of the feelings they evoke. One man watched them from a shop in Climat de France, clenching his fists in anger, groups of youths staring with hatred, others ignoring the patrol as if we did not exist, as if their war had already defeated the authority which the commandant's men still represent. The gendarmes stopped a van carrying a cheap plywood coffin and the mourners in the back looked right through the Ninjas as if they were made of glass.

"Watch how the guys in the distance hurry away when they catch sight of us," the commandant said. And, sure enough, when we watched the far end of streets, men could be seen moving swiftly towards doorways, alleys, corridors that opened onto the road. "It's crawling with them," Commandant Mohamed said as we entered Cherarba. "This place isn't what they call `liberated' but it's with them, everyone who lives here. In the elections, it was 100 per cent FIS."

Only rarely did he mention the acronym of the Islamic Salvation Front, whose inevitable victory in national elections three years ago was annulled by a military-backed government, provoking the very violence which forced Commandant Mohamed's 150 men of the Escadron de Securit Routire to give up their BMW motor-cycles in favour of armoured vans. He preferred other titles for the FIS: "outlaws" or "terrorists" or just "them".

The facts came pouring from him like the rapid fire of his Kalashnikov. Almost all the armed Islamists carry Israeli weapons - "Scorpios or Uzis" - which he thought must have been smuggled across Algeria's long and unguarded borders with Morocco, Libya, Tunisia or Mali. They were making bombs with butane gas bottles filled with explosives, glass, acetylene, sulphur and iron filings, buried in the roads and detonated with batteries. "What these people do is not Islamic," he said. "You don't slash the throats of women, kids and foreigners to be a Muslim." But he showed a healthy respect for his enemies.

"They are organised. There is a `brain' behind them. These are people who evolve with the situation. They change. They used to use stolen hunting rifles. Now they use automatic weapons and explosives. They strike wherever they want and they have the initiative. They have `spotters' and they have a method. The leaders know each other but those who do the attacks don't know each other. It's a pyramid structure."

It was the old story of insurrection. The Islamists had shaved their beards, donned djelaba robes, sometimes pretended to be fruit pickers, rifles at their side in the orange groves, sleeping in the slums at night, walking out through the suburban wadis by the sewage overflows at dawn. "In Algiers, the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) are much more numerous than the FIS's armed movement," the commandant said as he relaxed in his office at the Haddad Barracks in Harrash, an old Rolling Stones 33 record - I'm a Street-Fighting Man - on the turntable. "When you fight with them, they fight to the end. They never surrender."

In the country - "stay no more than 20 minutes in one spot or they can mount an ambush, they attack in bands of 20 or 30" - the Ninjas are more at ease. At one point we ran through fields of yellow rape seed beneath snow-touched mountains near Blida, the gendarmes raising their rifles at a figure in the grass, only to be confronted by a schoolboy carrying a school satchel who refused to raise his arms. The Commandant grinned at him. "It's OK," he said again. But not in Chateau Rouge where the Ninjas pounced on a cafe full of men - "hands against the wall, spread your feet, papers" - and handcuffed one grim-faced figure with a dark beard. "He's wearing Reebok shoes - they cost 200 US dollars here - how did he get the money?" the commandant asked. Two miles further on, 26 year-old Mohamed Beninal had his handcuffs removed. He wasn't on the police computer.

Later, in Bab el-Oued, the hardest of all the Islamist strongholds in any Algerian city, Commandant Mohamed and his men strung themselves along the pavement, watched by perhaps a thousand young men, so that I could take photographs. "It's swarming with spotters," he muttered. "Look at the way they look at us." The gendarmes pointed their rifles at the roofs, balconies, pavements, as the crowds grew thicker, more disturbed, as if they might tear the policemen apart. Commandant Mohamed insisted that a burst of fire in the air would clear the street if there was trouble. But after just two minutes, he looked at his watch."We should go," he said. "Now."

And so they went, 15 men whose bravery could not be questioned but with a task as sombre as it appeared almost impossible. I wondered amid the orchards and slums, how many new recruits to the GIA the identity checks had created. Support for authority does not come from a rifle at the neck. Almost every street through which we passed had effectively been lost to government control, every district patrolled by groups of young, angry men, the gendarmes treated as interlopers rather than protectors. To be sure, there are no `no-go' areas in Algiers, but there are now no safe ones either.

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