ALGIERS — Hooded men armed with axes descended on an isolated farm village before dawn Friday, slitting the throats of residents or decapitating them. Villagers and hospital workers said more than 300 people were slain.
The attack appeared to be the worst carnage since Algeria's Islamic insurgency began five years ago, although it was unclear who carried it out.
Witnesses said severed heads lay on the doorsteps of Rais, a village in the Sidi Moussa region 15 miles south of the capital. Its streets were full of corpses, and 20 young women were abducted.
"They took their time to cut throats and to burn the bodies," said a 35-year-old man who would give only his first name, Amar.
Algeria's military government has insisted that it has the uprising under control. President Liamine Zeroual claimed only a week ago that "terrorism is living its final hours."
The Islamic militants want to overthrow the government and install one based on their interpretation of Koranic law. That would mean requiring women to cover their heads, banning alcohol and instituting compulsory religious education, among other things.
The government, which rarely comments on specific attacks and often seeks to minimize the death toll, gave an official count of 98 killed and 120 wounded.
But hospital workers and villagers, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the death toll exceeded 300.
The government said it is taking measures to thwart the violence but gave no specifics.
About 1,500 people have been killed in attacks attributed to Islamic insurgents since early June, when the military-backed government swept Algeria's first multi-party elections with promises to crush the bloody insurgency.
Muslim militants have been trying to overthrow the government since the army canceled the last parliamentary vote in 1992, when it appeared that the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front--a coalition of religious parties--would win. The insurgency has left more than 60,000 people dead.
No one has claimed responsibility for the massacres. The attacks usually target vulnerable areas such as isolated farms and villages.
Residents in Rais said the raiders arrived in trucks and cars at 1 a.m. Friday. They stayed until 6 a.m., entering homes to wake victims and slit their throats. Many were decapitated.
Before leaving, the attackers burned many of the bodies. They also destroyed some homes with explosives after looting them of food, clothes, money and jewelry.
Journalists arriving before the village was closed off by government troops saw at least 100 bodies in the streets, some badly burned.
By the afternoon, thousands of government troops were searching the region.
Rais used to have about 1,000 inhabitants, but violence has driven half of them out in the past two years. After the latest massacre, none of the 200 villagers left are expected to stay.
"Where are we going to go now?" one man asked.