Sadism is new creed in Algeria

Fundamentalist brutality is coming ever closer to the capital

The butchery is getting closer to Algiers. There have been atrocities aplenty in the Algerian capital but the latest mass murder of civilians confirms that the "Islamists" are striking ever closer to the city. And these new atrocities - 29 dead in just 48 hours, almost all of them decapitated with knives - prove the country's civil war is growing ever more bloody in the days following the imposition of a new constitution.

The Islamic Armed Group (GIA) is being blamed for the bloodbath in Benachour, only 30 miles from Algiers, in which whole families had their throats cut after guerrillas entered the hamlet at the weekend to avenge themselves on villagers who had dared to join the government's heavily-armed "communal guard" units. The dead included a child of six, two 13-year-old schoolgirls and a pregnant woman who was disembowelled before being beheaded.

After hours of censorship by the government - which insists the war against "terrorism" is all but over - the Algerian press is now free to report on this latest butchery, which it is doing, with customary condemnation of the GIA and the barbus - "bearded ones" who are generally held responsible. There is no hint expressed in the press of the claim by the Islamic Armed Group (AIS), the less ferocious of Algeria's two anti-government armies, that part of the GIA has been infiltrated by the country's military security service and may be deliberately staging atrocities to drive civilians into supporting the military-backed regime.

Yet it still seems inconceivable that the regular army would involve itself in such terrible deeds; however ruthless the security forces may be, soldiers have their homes in these villages. In another hamlet outside Blida, the murders were committed with what can only be described as extreme sadism. At Haouch Trab, on the road between Boufarik and Chebli, 10 civilians - including seven women and a 10-year-old boy - also had their throats cut just before 10pm on Wednesday night, two entire families wiped out by the attackers after being accused of supporting the local "communal guard". One eyewitness told Algerian journalists that the first to have her throat cut was a 25-year-old woman whose head was later cut off, tied by her hair to a pike and left by the roadside. The murderers left behind them graffiti, written in blood, on a wall: "War through war and destruction through destruction. Kouka will return."

"Kouka" was the nom-de-guerre of a local GIA leader - real name Halilat Kouk - killed by "communal guard" forces last year. At the funeral near Boufarik, army helicopters raced overhead, opening fire on the surrounding countryside in an attempt - according to the local government militia - to strike at "terrorist targets."

The ruthlessness of this war can be gauged from words as well as from blood. When Moukrane Hamoui, a journalist on the Arabic-language daily Al-Shuruq was murdered by gunmen in Algiers, the newspaper Liberte boldly headlined its story: "Day of Mourning".

A new "communique" claiming the murder and issued by the AIS, however, gloated over Hamoui's death. "An apostate working for Shuruq, which advocates vice and depravity, fell into an ambush set by the `mujahideen' who killed him and left safe and sound," the AIS announced. "Three days later, some junta [sic] newspapers declared that these `mujahideen' had been killed. We say: Produce your proof if you are telling the truth". Human rights groups are meanwhile fearful that the atrocities apparently committed by "Islamist" groups may obscure the growing evidence of fearful tortures in the basements of Algeria's police stations, including - according to consistent reports from released prisoners - the rape of women.

The Belgian authorities, for example, will be interested to know that Othmane Bousria, the Algerian they expelled in July - on the grounds that he would not be in danger if he returned to Algeria - is reported to have died in police custody at the town of Motaganem.

According to Liberte, Bousria was arrested in the second week of November while attempting to cross the Algerian-Libyan frontier, along with his young sister, on a forged Danish passport. The paper says Bousria "committed suicide" by throwing himself out of a security forces office while awaiting trial.

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