One of the worst massacres in almost five years of war between the military-backed authorities in Algeria and their militant Muslim opponents took the lives of at least 98 inhabitants in hamlets south of Algiers overnight, the Algerian government said Friday.
Witnesses and hospital workers told journalists that as many as 300 might have been killed in a night of carnage when armed attackers moved in and slit the throats of men, women and children, leaving the heads of some of the victims on their doorsteps after they left.
Algerian journalists who went to the scene, in the village of Rais near Sidi Moussa, an Islamic stronghold that has been the site of many smaller killings in the past, reported seeing scores of burned bodies, some of them decapitated, lying in the streets Friday morning.
The authorities blamed the Armed Islamic Group, a militant organization spawned after the army’s cancellation of an election in early 1992 that the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front appeared certain to win. The civil war that followed has killed an estimated 60,000 people.
What happened in Sidi Moussa overnight may have produced the highest single toll of the conflict, which continues day after day, week after week, with car-bombings, assassinations and mass killings. On Thursday, two bombings, in the port city of Oran and in Algiers, took 18 lives. On Tuesday, 64 people were reported killed in another massacre in the mountain hamlet of Beni Ali, 40 miles south of the capital.
Much of the time there is no clear proof whether supporters or opponents of the government were responsible.
Accounts given by survivors Friday in Sidi Moussa, in Blida Province about 30 miles south of Algiers, described the attackers only as hooded. They arrived at about 1 a.m. in trucks and cars, they said, carrying shotguns, knives and axes and going on a rampage of killing and pillage that spared neither women nor children. It ended shortly before dawn when they pulled out of town, taking 20 young girls with them.
“They took their time to cut throats and to burn the bodies,” a survivor said.
The Algerian authorities indicated they would pursue the Islamic guerrillas they hold responsible with all the means at their disposal. “The state will continue to struggle without mercy against the barbarous criminals until their eradication,” a statement said.
More than 1,000 people have reportedly been killed since June, when the government of President Liamine Zeroual went ahead with multiparty elections in which his supporters claimed victory.
The Islamic Front urged its supporters to boycott the vote, and only 65.5 percent of those eligible went to the polls.
The violence continued unabated even after the authorities released Abassi Madani, a leader of the banned Islamic Front, on July 15. After a government sweep against insurgents south and west of Algiers later last month, Algerian and French news organizations said one of the most wanted guerrilla leaders, Antar Zouabri, had been killed, but there was never any confirmation of his death.
The continuing violence spread to France, which the Islamic guerrillas have accused of supporting the government. France, which is home to hundreds of thousands of Algerians, has tried to keep its distance but has not cut off trade or economic assistance.
Terrorist bombings on the Paris rapid transit system in 1995 and 1996 for which the Islamic guerrillas acknowledged responsibility killed 10 people and wounded several hundred.
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