Carrying mattresses on their backs, terrified villagers fled their homes Tuesday, flooding big-city public squares to seek a safe haven from vicious attacks that have killed more than 1,200 people in a week.
Shocked by Algeria’s incessant bloodshed, European and U.S. diplomats insisted they wanted to help - but said they were essentially powerless to end the killing spree.
“There seems to be very little one can do in concrete terms,” said Klaus van der Pas, chief spokesman for the European Commission.
Algeria, meanwhile, rejected a U.S. call for an international inquiry, “whatever its form or nature.”
Late Tuesday, survivors reported another slaughter - 200 people killed in a weekend massacre in a remote western village - bringing the total killed since Saturday to nearly 400.
“The bodies were mutilated, and many disfigured by axes,” said one survivor of the Sunday night massacre in Chekala, which has no telephones and is reachable only by narrow mountain roads.
The man, who earlier Tuesday had buried fellow villagers, was one of about 100 villagers who fled and took refuge in a mosque or in stores in Meknassa, a nearby community where another 117 people were killed Sunday night.
The slew of recent massacres - some of them among the worst since Islamic insurgents launched their violent crusade six years ago - have come in rapid succession, killing scores of men, women and children at one time. The attacks have been marked by extreme savagery: The killers have wielded knives, swords and axes and burned entire villages to the ground.
No one has claimed responsibility for any of the mass slayings, which come as Muslims are celebrating the holy month of Ramadan. But Algeria’s frequent bombings and bloody massacres mostly are blamed on Islamic militants intent on toppling the military-backed secular government in favor of a regime run according to strict Koranic law.
There has been some speculation that the government, while ostensibly waging an offensive against the extremists, has looked the other way as a means of drumming up anger against the insurgents.
The government maintained its usual silence Tuesday, acknowledging none of the new attacks. But it harshly rejected calls Tuesday by U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin for Algiers to allow international inquiries into the violence.
The U.S. ambassador in Algiers, Cameron Hume, was summoned by the Algerian Foreign Ministry late Tuesday for an “explanation” of the U.S. comments, the official Algerian news agency reported. Algeria has bristled in the past at what it has deemed attempts to intervene in its domestic policy.
Later, the news agency issued a statement saying the ambassador had been “reminded of the categorical rejection by Algeria of any idea of an international commission of inquiry, no matter where it comes from or whatever its form or nature.”
In contrast to the government’s silence on the carnage, in Algiers and other large cities, flooded by families from violence-torn rural areas, people were speaking about nothing else.
“I bring my family far from the deaths, but I know that we are heading toward misery,” said a man who fled Meknassa for the nearby western city of Relizane.
The attack in Meknassa - reported by the daily La Tribune and confirmed by hospital officials - took place despite a strong army presence in the Relizane region, the site of the insurgency’s most devastating massacre last week. More than 400 people were killed there on Dec. 30, the first day of Ramadan.
Algeria’s Islamic insurgency was sparked by the military’s decision to cancel a 1992 legislative election runoff that Muslim fundamentalist parties were poised to win. The violence, which has claimed some 75,000 lives, typically grows more intense around Ramadan.
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