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Up to 200 Killed in Algeria's Latest Slaughter

September 24, 1997|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — Attackers with machine guns, firebombs and knives invaded a neighborhood outside the Algerian capital early Tuesday and methodically killed scores of men, women and children in one of the worst episodes in nearly six years of political bloodshed, witnesses said.

Although the government reported 85 people killed, medical workers, gravediggers and witnesses said they counted more than 200 bodies in the suburb of Baraki, just east of Algiers. As calls for an international solution to Algeria's agony mount, the slaughter is the latest in a series of mass killings that have become increasingly difficult for experts to explain.

Large groups of armed men attack at night, often close to police and military barracks. They appear able to carry out horrendous slayings undisturbed and then melt away with the daylight.

Adding to the mystery, the incidents are reported in newspapers--but frequently are not confirmed by the government, which has been battling militants since it annulled parliamentary elections in 1992 that Islamic parties were poised to win.

Meanwhile, the scale of death has spiraled. A few months ago, when attackers were hitting isolated villages, a raid might have left several dozen people dead. But in the past two months, massacres have moved into greater Algiers, and death tolls have risen correspondingly.

On Aug. 29, in what was apparently the worst single massacre of the insurgency, about 300 people were slaughtered in Rais, a village 15 miles south of the capital. Algerians responded to the news with despair.

Tuesday's massacre occurred less than 48 hours after Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia appeared on national television Sunday to announce that his government's uncompromising policy had turned the tide against the extremists. Because of "the increased vigilance of the population, the determination of the security forces and the end of political bargaining, the country now faces only residual terrorism," he proclaimed.

Those words meant little Tuesday. The heavily armed attackers arrived shortly after midnight, surrounded the neighborhood, then systematically forced victims out of their homes, where they were gunned down or had their throats slit, according to news agency accounts.

Homemade grenades and Molotov cocktails were thrown into houses, said survivors quoted by Agence France-Presse. "They even tossed children from the terraces," one man said.

Most Algerians appeared ready to put an Islamic party, the Islamic Salvation Front, in power in January 1992, but the army intervened to cancel the second round of voting and subsequently outlawed the Front, known as the FIS. The generals argued that the FIS would have created a totalitarian Islamic state that would have wiped out the country's newborn democracy.

Since then, popular sentiment--once firmly on the side of the Islamists--has shifted against practitioners of violence, whether from the state or the Islamist camp.

But as Algerians set up self-defense committees in their neighborhoods, and stay awake at night to be ready for more murderous raids, many still do not accept government claims that the killings are solely the work of armed Islamic groups.

Western diplomats in Algiers also express some puzzlement. Diplomatic sources said they assumed Tuesday's attack was carried out by one of the five or six armed groups opposing the government, but they could not be sure.

One Western diplomat noted that the latest massacres, though tragic, do not fundamentally change the country's situation. "We have seen several cycles of violence," the diplomat said, and none has posed any real threat to the state, headed by a former general, President Liamine Zeroual.

Algeria, meanwhile, has been rife with rumors of a power struggle within the regime, between so-called "eradicators" who favor a relentless crackdown on Islamic elements and those who would accept some kind of negotiated solution with the FIS if it renounces violence.

One Algerian specialist, journalist Qusai Saleh Darwish, argues that a serious power struggle has indeed been raging in the upper echelons of the regime, and that these tensions could help explain why there has been no effective army response to the massacres.

The confused signals from the government were evident in the decision in July to release the jailed FIS founder Abassi Madani from prison, in what was perceived as a major gesture of conciliation, only to put him back under house arrest earlier this month.

The recent spate of massacres has fueled demands for some sort of international effort to end the conflict. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who condemned the Tuesday massacre as a "brutal act of terrorism," offered three weeks ago to mediate between the government and the Islamic insurgents, but he was sternly rebuffed by the Algerian leadership.

Commentators in the Arab world have been asking loudly lately why Arab governments are not doing something to help. But even Arab analysts concede they are baffled about what is going on.

"Who are the people committing these crimes and who or what is behind them?" asked Abdul Qader Tash recently in Saudi Arabia's Arab News. "Are they Islamists as claimed by the government media? Are they government agents as some Islamists claim? Or do they belong to both sides?"

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