ALGIERS — Thirty years ago, the Casbah sheltered Algeria's revolutionaries from the guns and tanks of the French, its terraced rooftops and inscrutable alleys an impenetrable Arab fortress that mystified and finally confounded soldiers unaccustomed to urban guerrilla warfare.
It concealed bomb-maker Yasef Saadi through a network of tunnels in his lair that became known as "L'impasse de la Grenade," and shielded terrorist Ali La Pointe and 1,500 contemporaries on its rooftops and in closed courtyards. The ancient hillside quarter that once hosted Ulysses and Hercules on their fabled voyages finally gave up its guerrillas to the French only when its alleys ran with blood.
Now, the Casbah is home to a new generation of revolutionaries, and its dark pathways are proving just as confounding to the independent Algerian army. Bands of police and soldiers armed with hunting dogs are prowling the steep streets by night, hunting down the Muslim guerrillas who have now killed more than a dozen officers and spread terror among the residents whose homes have once again become a battleground.
"This is the second time in the Casbah," sighed 67-year-old Harjki, a quiet man in a long overcoat and a worn blue beret. "It's exactly the same. Our hearts have died, because it's happening again, and we never believed it could."
The sound of gunshots racketed through the winding streets for nearly four hours on a Friday afternoon not long ago and has sporadically cut through the nighttime silence nearly every evening since. Soldiers stormed a house in the Casbah's upper reaches just before dawn on one day, touching off a grenade-fueled explosion that killed four people and shooting a fifth man through the heart before dragging off Harjki's son.
In Regents' Square at the foot of the Casbah, a five-minute fusillade from the old quarter recently ended with a young man walking silently into the middle of the empty square, carrying the bloody, lifeless body of his 6-year-old daughter.
"His clothes were stained," reported the Algiers daily newspaper Al Watan. "The father continued to advance, despite the attempts of those around him to stop him. Then the man fell and broke into sobs next to the body of his child. Tragedy."
Several Algerian government officials say that many of the Islamic militants challenging the government's move to cancel national elections, ban the Muslim fundamentalist political party and declare a state of emergency are styling themselves after Algeria's revolutionaries who fought the French.
The most serious of the militant attacks so far, they say, have been launched from precisely the points where Algeria's war of independence began in 1954: in the Casbah and its environs and in the Aures Mountains of east-central Algeria, where the city of Batna was under virtual siege last month after a Muslim uprising.
Just as in the days of the revolution--which ended in 1962 when the French, in the words of French journalist Jean Planchais, "no longer understood why they were fighting"--the Casbah has become a city of mirrors, with one side disappearing into the other in a shield of disguises.
A recent attack on a police station at the top of the Casbah was undertaken by militants dressed in regulation army uniforms, according to a man who witnessed the attack, which killed one officer and wounded another. A carload of men in fundamentalist-style beards was seen entering the nearby Defense Ministry compound recently, lending credence to Casbah residents' claims that networks of plainclothes police officers in beards have penetrated the Casbah and popular quarters nearby.
The Casbah's barber shops are full, as Islamic Salvation Front supporters shave off the trademark beards that have helped land more than 5,000 people in detention camps since President Chadli Bendjedid's forced resignation Jan. 11.
Government and military authorities say many of the most militant fundamentalists come from among about 1,000 young Algerians, trained in Sudan and Pakistan, who volunteered to fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Before the present wave of uprisings, they could be recognized by their trademark knit caps, wide trousers and kohl-rimmed eyes--and their militant Muslim rhetoric, which argued for the imposition of an Islamic state in Algeria without benefit of elections.
Since the coup and subsequent state of emergency, the so-called "Afghanis" have gone underground, many believed to be hiding in the dark recesses of the Casbah.
Government officials say there is a difference between the revolution, when thousands of Algerians who had sheltered the guerrillas eventually streamed out of the Casbah and rioted, and now, when many residents are afraid of Islamic militants.
"The Casbah is a symbol of the revolution, and they are trying to copy them now," said a Foreign Ministry official. "If you see the film 'The Battle of Algiers,' it's happening all over again.