Police pay bloody price as Algiers claims civil war victory

Islamist 'sleepers' bide their time in the cities while armed comrades fight on, reports Robert Fisk
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In the inside columns of the Algiers press, a few sinister facts are emerging after the euphoria of last week's election of President Liamine Zeroual. Near Tadmait, in the Kabyle mountains, an anti-tank rocket was fired at a polling station. In Constantine, a gas cylinder packed with explosives was defused by a bomb disposal squad in a hotel. In Tissemsilt, four Islamists were killed by troops near a polling booth. Peace, it seems, is a slippery commodity, difficult to achieve despite elections and the apparent rejection of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) by 75 per cent of Algeria's voters.

Only days before the poll - in which the now-banned FIS was forbidden from participating - paramilitary police had claimed yet another success in their war against "terrorism": the destruction of an Armed Islamic Group (GIA) cell in the Kabyle capital of Tizi Ouzou. Arezki Ait Ziane - real name Mourad Khalil - and his six GIA comrades were surrounded in an apartment block and, after hours of vain negotiations, shot down when the police stormed the building. Inside the flat, the police found a dead woman, six months pregnant, who had been shot in the head. She was Khalil's wife, they claimed, murdered by her husband in the seconds before he himself was killed in a hail of gunfire.

Did the GIA leader really slaughter his own wife in the seconds before his death? The Algerian authorities quickly announced that Khalil had been responsible for the murder of a university professor and a Tizi Ouzou journalist called Said Tazrout as well as the kidnapping of Lounes Matoub, a local Kabyle singer who was abducted earlier this year and released after mass demonstrations by the Berber population of Tizi Ouzou. The GIA, so the government would have the world believe, was on the run even before the elections.

In the Harrache barracks of the gendarmerie, Commandant Mohamed - like most cops, he doesn't want his family name published - makes no such claims. He produces a piece of transparent paper on which are glued the passport photographs of almost 20 policemen. "This man was kidnapped near the garage of his home," he says, pointing to a youth staring into a police camera. "They got him when he was on his own at the start of the year. We later found a corpse inside a blanket but it was so badly burned, it was unidentifiable. We found his car burned out near by. It must have been his body, but we were never able to say so for sure. We shall not see him again."

More disturbing are the next 10 photographs, all of paramilitary policemen, most of them in their early 20s, every one killed on the railway line between Algiers and Oran. Commandant Mohamed pulls out sheets of paper from the Algerian railway authorities, each bearing illustrations of French steam locomotives hauling trucks and petrol wagons. "We put 75 policemen on the freight trains to and from Oran every day," he says. "We don't tell anyone where the policemen are on the train; we can put them at the front, in the middle, the back and the front, wherever we want."

But secrecy has not saved their lives. On 18 May this year, three of Commandant Mohamed's cops were riding the night freight train to Oran when it was ambushed near Boufarik about 30 miles from the capital, blown off the tracks by explosives and then attacked by at least 40 armed men - half a company of uniformed Islamists with automatic weapons. Three policemen were shot dead and another five wounded.

Worse was to come. On 2 August the night petrol train from Oran to Algiers was blown off the tracks at Oumedrou near Chlef. Commandant Mohamed's men had been riding in a freight car behind the last petrol truck, and their wagon leapt the rails and overturned down the railway embankment. Those policemen who survived the impact were drowned in petrol as the contents of the nearest wagon poured into the wreckage of their carriage.

On 16 October, another attack was staged against a train near Chaibia and another two members of the gendarmerie were killed.

What troubles the commandant and his colleagues, however, is the belief that the GIA have left "sleepers" in the big cities of Algeria, young men and women who have been instructed to lead ordinary lives as long as the paramilitary campaign against the guerrillas is maintained. "They are there and they have not disappeared," he says. "Some have been killed, some captured, some have come across and helped the authorities. But not all of them. There are those who are waiting for the holes in our net to get wider again."

Of course, this may be over-cautious - pessimism from a police officer who knows better than to boast, someone who says "touch wood" when you ask him about victory over the GIA. But after the presumption of victory by the government and its supporters last week, the commandant's story bears a little more scrutiny. The war, if it has gone against the GIA these past months, appears to be far from over.