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56 Die in Algerian Attacks

Islamic militants are blamed in assaults on a military convoy and two families. The violence undercuts claims of the insurgency's decline.

January 06, 2003|From Associated Press

ALGIERS — Islamic militants ambushed a military convoy in northeastern Algeria and attacked families near the capital in a weekend of killings that claimed at least 56 lives, Algerian media reported Sunday.

The ambush Saturday night reportedly killed 43 soldiers and seriously wounded 19, the deadliest assault suffered by the military in at least five years.

In the other attack, Islamic militants killed 13 people from two families overnight Saturday in Zabana, 30 miles south of Algiers, the official news agency APS reported. It blamed the Armed Islamic Group.

The killings dealt a blow to claims by the military-backed government that it is winning its decade-old battle against Islamic extremists.

Military leaders said in October that only 600 to 650 militants were still operating in the country.

The convoy was ambushed in the village of Theniet Abed, 200 miles southeast of Algiers, Le Matin newspaper reported. The village is near the town of Batna.

The mountainous region is a stronghold of the Salafist Group for Call and Combat. The group is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations and reportedly has links with Al Qaeda.

Le Matin said the attackers detonated devices made from bottles of explosive acetylene gas, commonly used in welding. The 43 dead were soldiers or members of Algeria's civilian defense force, Le Matin said, citing hospital officials.

More than 120,000 people have been killed in a decade of strife in Algeria, where Islamic militants have staged attacks since they were barred from elections in 1992. At the insurgency's peak in 1997, violence claimed 1,200 lives during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Last year, about 1,100 civilians, militants and security troops were killed in violence linked to the insurgency, roughly the same number as in 2001, according to figures compiled by Algerian newspapers.

The government dealt a blow to the insurgency last year with the killing of several extremist leaders, including the chief of the Armed Islamic Group.

The army has been hunting down insurgents who refused President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's offer of amnesty for some militants willing to surrender their weapons. But militant groups have struck back, stepping up attacks on army convoys.

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