They come in the night, bearded and determined warriors of Islam. Armed with semiautomatic rifles, hatchets, axes and knives, they slip into the sleeping villages of Algeria and set about their work.
They often target children and women for death. At other times, they set off car bombs that bring down entire apartment blocks.
The savagery of the Islamists fighting Algeria’s military-led government is, according to one Western diplomat, the worst that has been seen anywhere in the world for a number of years - on a level that makes some of the atrocities of the Bosnian war pale by comparison.
This is a hidden war, one that only sporadically captures the world’s attention, but it is far deadlier than many other conflicts that feature regularly in the news, and in the last few months it has escalated dramatically in intensity.
Sid Ali Melouah, 47, a political cartoonist who recently fled Algeria and came to Paris, has witnessed the aftermath to some of the horror.
He recalls that three years ago in the village of Hamadi, six miles from Algiers, he saw something that made him ill. The terrorists had beheaded a man and a dog, then attached the man’s head to the dog’s body and vice versa.
Melouah said fetuses have been ripped from the bodies of living women, some people have been skinned alive and booby traps have been left in corpses to kill those who collect the bodies.
“There have never been such barbarities in history,” he said. “These people take pleasure in making their victims suffer.”
In six years the death toll has been officially estimated at 60,000 to 75,000 out of a population of 29 million. But Western diplomats and French government officials say the Algiers government consistently understates the scale of the killing, and the French say the true figure could be as high as 500,000.
Others offer estimates of 120,000 to 200,000. The true figure probably never will be known.
The truth about what is happening is blurry because the government rarely allows foreign journalists into the country, and when it does their movements are strictly supervised. Most television coverage that reaches the outside world, often consisting of gruesome pictures of atrocities, is supplied by government-controlled stations, and Algerian newspapers are censored.
Foreign diplomats working in Algeria live in heavily guarded compounds and do not venture into danger zones. They admit their knowledge of what is happening is sketchy, and say they seldom know for sure whether the intelligence reports they receive are accurate.
The conflict erupted after December 1991, when the Islamists were on the brink of coming to power through elections. They took a commanding lead in the first round of voting, and the military government quickly canceled the second round to stave off defeat, then declared a state of emergency.
There appears to be a surreal quality to the killing of innocent civilians by Islamic militants who would seem to be defeating their own purpose of converting the country to their cause. But, according to various experts, there is a Byzantine murkiness to the motivation of those doing the killing that outsiders often are unable to untangle.
There is general agreement, however, that most of the killing is being done by the most radical of the Islamic factions, the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA by its French initials. Another faction, the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, recently declared a cease-fire and was reported to have begun contacts with the government about a possible settlement.
Diplomats said the GIA apparently has stepped up its attacks, particularly in its strongholds around Algiers, to demonstrate that any agreement between FIS and the government would be worthless.
They say GIA also attacks villages that voted in the past for FIS or other parties. GIA also may be stepping up its campaign, they said, to try to intimidate people from voting in local elections to be conducted Oct. 23.
Some recent attacks, particularly in the village of Ben Talha 15 miles east of Algiers, have occurred near military garrisons, prompting speculation that the military was itself killing people to try to discredit GIA even further.
In the case of Ben Talha, Algerian sources said the guerrillas laid mines around the village to deter the army from intervening while they carried out their killings.
In other cases, diplomats said, troops either have been caught unaware by attacks or have stayed in their barracks, afraid of risking their lives in clashes with the guerrillas.
Western diplomats said there is no evidence the military has engaged in killings as a matter of official policy. But they said elements in the faction-ridden military may have carried out attacks, either to tar GIA, to strike at the authority of President Liamine Zeroual, himself an army general, or to block moves toward peace talks.
“This is not a government of one mind,” one diplomat said. “Zeroual does not necessarily find support among all the generals.”
Diplomats said there is one government faction that is open to dialogue with the Islamists, and another that refuses any discussion and thinks the solution is the eradication of their movements. Algerian sources said a third faction not only favors dialogue but would take guerrillas into the army as part of a settlement.
Melouah has his own explanation of the guerrillas’ resort to indiscriminate slaughter.
“They are punishing the people because they have failed to rally to their cause, and in their eyes the people don’t deserve an Islamic republic,” he said.
Abassi Madani, one of the FIS leaders, was quoted as saying in a speech in January 1996: “We are ready to sacrifice two-thirds of the population to permit the remaining one-third to return to the ways of God.”
Mohammed Said, a GIA leader, also has said: “We are ready, in order to cleanse this country, to liquidate 2 million inhabitants.”
Melouah said a settlement to the conflict is almost beyond reach. If the government makes concessions to the Islamists to obtain a peace agreement, he said, the guerrillas’ victims will take up arms to oppose any such settlement.
He and other Algerians said both the guerrillas and the government are regarded by democratically minded citizens as fascist, but most people support the government as the lesser of two evils.
“We are being asked to choose between the plague and cholera,” Melouah said.
While the massacres continue, the outside world watches helplessly. There have been numerous suggestions for United Nations or other outside mediation, but these have been firmly rejected by the Algerian government and its Islamic opponents alike.
The French government has come under heavy criticism for its inaction from some of its own citizens. But French officials say these critics, after private discussions away from microphones and TV cameras, often come to accept that there is little the government can do.
That Algeria should be the setting for an Islamic conflict is somewhat surprising, for after long years of French domination it found itself with a society that was highly secularized. From 1870 until 1962 when Algeria won its independence after an often-savage, eight-year war of liberation against the French, the country was considered not as a colony but as part of France.
About 1 million French settlers were forced to leave the country at independence but, in many ways, their influence had imprinted itself on the life of a country that, blessed with oil and natural gas wealth, appeared destined to prosper.
But the government of President Houari Boumedienne squandered much of the country’s wealth through misconceived industrialization programs and corruption. By the beginning of the 1990s Algeria had huge social problems: unemployment of 38 percent, a desperate shortage of housing, deteriorating education and health services and a concentration of money in the hands of a corrupt elite.
“The rise of the Islamic movement did not reflect the strength of religion, but of social unrest,” said an exiled journalist who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals against relatives in Algeria.
The conflict that erupted in 1991 has driven an estimated 400,000 Algerians, most of them among the most highly educated, into exile. Many have come to France, whose population now includes 1 million people of Algerian origin.
For those who remain behind, the future appears bleak. Experts do not believe the Islamists have a real hope of coming to power. But they can continue to make life a misery for millions of citizens, and keep the government tottering in instability, for a long time to come.