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 eyewitnesses said they had 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 murders that have become increasingly difficult to explain.
Large groups of armed men attack at night, often close to police and military barracks. They appear able to carry out horrendous murders 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 1992 when it annulled parliamentary elections 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 apparently is the worst single massacre of the insurgency, about 300 people were slaughtered in Rais, a village 15 miles south of the capital.
Tuesday’s massacre occurred less than 48 hours after Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia had 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, however, meant little Tuesday.
The heavily armed attackers arrived shortly after midnight, surrounding the neighborhood, then systematically forced victims out of their homes, where they were gunned down or their throats were slit, according to news agency accounts.
Homemade grenades and Molotov cocktails were thrown into houses, said survivors quoted by the French news agency AFP. “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 party, known as FIS. The generals argued that FIS would have created a totalitarian Islamic state which would have wiped out the country’s newborn democracy.
Since then, popular sentiment - once firmly on the side of Islamic parties- has shifted against practitioners of violence, whether from the state or Islamic camps.
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 Tuesday they assume the latest attack was carried out by one of the five or six armed groups opposing the government, but they could not be sure.
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 Tuesday’s massacre as a “brutal act of terrorism,” offered three weeks ago to mediate between the government and Islamic insurgents, but he sternly was rebuffed by the Algerian leadership.