TAMESGUIDA, Algeria — In this farming community of perhaps 250 families on a high, silent perch in the Atlas Mountains, a band of about 30 Islamic militants crept by night into a compound of foreign contractors, herded 14 Christian Croats into a dry riverbed and slit their throats.
"We are the terrorists of the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front), and we are here to kill," one young contractor, who had his neck slashed but survived the Dec. 14 attack, said the militants told him and his colleagues.
He subsequently lay for hours in the silence of his slain companions.
"We all tried to pretend we were Muslims but, in the end, we didn't know Arabic and we didn't know how to pray," he said.
Algeria, whose war of independence helped form modern notions of revolutionary violence and state retribution, is providing new lessons in urban warfare in the Middle East.
A long battle against Islamic fundamentalism--a war whose stakes could stretch to surrounding Arab nations in North Africa, including Egypt, and even Europe--has escalated to new levels of violence in recent months, leaving the future of Algeria's shaky interim government in doubt.
In the latest incidents blamed on the Islamic insurgency, 11 people, including five police officers whose caravan was ambushed, were killed between Wednesday and Friday. And a suspected militant was killed while trying to steal a rifle from a villager near Tizi Ouzou, east of Algiers.
A total of 23 foreigners have been killed in the warfare since mid-September, most of them since a Dec. 1 deadline by which an Islamic outlaw group warned foreigners to leave the country or die. Violent deaths in Algeria now average seven a day--some of them, human rights activists believe, attributable to anti-fundamentalist death squads.
Algeria, long in crisis, has slipped into a shadowy limbo of suspicion and conspiracy, death and retribution.
"If the situation continues to deteriorate at the (present) rate," one Western diplomat said, "there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when the regime collapses. And what happens after that is anybody's guess."
It has been a sad slide for Algeria over the last three years: Its sudden opening from Eastern Bloc-style socialism to multi-party democracy plunged the country from dizzy euphoria to the brink of civil war as an Islamic fundamentalist party, the FIS, swept the first national elections in the country's history with more than 3 million votes.
In what surrounding autocratic Arab regimes have pointed to soberly as a lesson in the pitfalls of quick democracy in the Middle East, the FIS was stopped only when the army stepped in two years ago.
It toppled President Chadli Bendjedid and installed a constitutionally dubious five-member High Committee of State to rule. The committee was supposed to restore order, initiate political reconciliation and give way to new national elections this month.
Instead, it has found itself powerless to initiate a national dialogue among Algeria's political factions, who seem to be able to agree on only one thing: the existing government's illegitimacy.
The government announced that it was extending its lease on life until the end of January and said it hoped to convene a national reconciliation conference by then.
The outlawed FIS, holding forth from exile in France and Germany, has said it expects an "explosive insurrection" before the year's end.
The even more militant Armed Islamic Group, which claimed responsibility for the slaying of the Croats and other attacks on foreigners, has threatened revenge against anyone who even thinks of engaging in talks with "the illegal junta."
Other political factions, even those who most detest the Islamic fundamentalists, have proclaimed that any national dialogue is useless without the FIS.
Outside analysts say the prospects over the next several weeks include anything from outright civil war to a cosmetic attempt to placate the FIS to a genuine political accommodation, for the first time in North Africa, with Islamic fundamentalism.
This last option would be worst of all, in the belief of many Arab regimes also plagued with Islamic violence.
"There are some who believe that the army's superior firepower will in the end be able to overcome the resistance. And maybe that is true," a Western analyst said. "But the problem is that the military are doing everything in their power already to control the situation, and still it is getting worse."
Ali Haroun, a member of the ruling committee, said in an interview: "We have reached one conclusion in all of our discussions: It is impossible to have elections at the end of 1993 because it is clear that to have elections at this time would be to risk provoking civil war.