PARIS — Two men armed with silencer-equipped submachine guns burst into a Paris mosque Tuesday and assassinated an elderly religious leader and Algerian opposition figure, casting new doubts on recent talk of a peace settlement in that war-torn North African nation.
Abdelbaki Sahraoui, a Muslim imam and co-founder of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was shot in the head, police said; another person who tried to stop the attack was also killed. The gunmen then fled.
The killings constituted the bloodiest incident of Algerian violence on French soil in the two years since the government here cracked down on the activities of the FIS and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a more hard-line Algerian guerrilla group.
Who was behind the killings Tuesday remained a mystery. French authorities said that politics was the likeliest motive, and the attack appeared to have severely damaged recent claims by Algerian government officials that they and the Islamic Salvation Front were close to a peace deal.
But Anwar Haddam, the FIS representative for the United States and Europe, blamed the killings on Algeria's military-backed government and said the two sides, in any case, "are not close to an agreement."
"We know who was behind it--the terrorist regime of Algeria," Haddam said in Washington. "This regime is now taking its war outside Algeria, and that is a very dangerous thing. They have opened a box that will be difficult to close. And it's time the Europeans took seriously this threat from the Algerian regime."
French authorities, however, suggested the assassination might have been part of a power struggle between the two Algerian groups, which have disagreed in recent months over tactics, especially over whether to negotiate with the government of Algeria and end the Islamic insurgency there. About 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict over the past three years.
The Islamic Salvation Front, whose attacks target only police and other non-civilian representatives of the government, favors negotiations with the government but has set preconditions that the Algerian authorities have rejected.
Guerrillas belonging to the Armed Islamic Group have killed dozens of foreigners and hundreds of civilians, including journalists, to press their demand for a complete transfer of power to an Islamic government. The Islamic Salvation Front was on the verge of winning 1992 parliamentary elections when the army stepped in to halt the poll.
After a recent raid on a GIA cell in Paris, French police said they found what they believe was a hit list, naming Sahraoui as target No. 7. Sahraoui had maintained close contact with French authorities, and he was one of the few leaders from the Islamic Salvation Front in France whom police had not arrested or expelled in their recent crackdown on Islamic activists.
But Haddam, the FIS spokesman in Washington, scoffed at suggestions that Sahraoui's death was a result of internal feuding among Algerian guerrilla groups.
"Sahraoui had nothing to do with the armed struggle, so he could not be part of any internal fight," Haddam said. "He was a peaceful man, not a man of politics. This kind of thing could never happen between Muslims."
In Algiers, President Liamine Zeroual said that discussions with Islamic Salvation Front leaders had failed to make progress over the past eight months toward ending the insurgency. In a statement, Zeroual said the last "glimmer of hope" from the negotiations was doused when the front refused to renounce its goal of establishing an Islamic state.