Assailants hacked and beat to death more than 400 people in attacks in western Algeria, a newspaper reported Saturday, dramatically raising the death toll previously released by the government. It would be the worst single day of violence in the country’s 6-year-old Muslim insurgency.
The independent paper Liberte, citing witnesses to the assaults, said several bands of assailants arrived at four villages near the city of Relizane at sunset Tuesday, just as the villagers were breaking their fasts on the first day of Ramadan.
In violence that lasted for hours, the attackers, armed with knives and axes, killed 412 people, slitting throats, cutting off heads and beating children to death, Liberte said.
The reported death toll greatly increases the figure of 78 the military-backed government gave earlier this week in a rare admission.
There was no way to independently confirm the report. Liberte, which has close ties to the leading opposition party, has in the past reported violence that the government denied. The government usually does not publicly acknowledge the violence sweeping the countryside.
A man identified only as Ali B. was quoted by Liberte as saying the attackers cut the throats of his wife and three of his children, and killed his 16-year-old daughter with an ax blow to the stomach.
Liberte said the bodies of the victims were buried right away in accordance with Muslim law.
There was no claim of responsibility for the attacks, though the region has been the frequent target of the Armed Islamic Group, Algeria’s most violent insurgent faction, thought to be the main force behind the country’s frequent massacres of civilians.
The two biggest previous massacres took place in August in villages south of Algiers, also a region frequently hit by the Armed Islamic Group. About 250 people were killed at Bentalha, and between 200 and 300 people were killed days later in the village of Raisi.
Since Algeria’s insurgency began in January 1992, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan has been a time of increased violence. More than 400 people were killed during Ramadan last year, and more than 300 were killed in the two weeks leading up to this year’s holiday.
Violence between the insurgents and government security forces has claimed more than 75,000 lives.
The insurgency began after the army canceled 1992 legislative elections that Muslim fundamentalist parties were poised to win. The militants want to overthrow the hard-line military-backed government and set up a state based on Koranic law.
Ramadan marks God’s revelation of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, to the Prophet Mohammed about 1,400 years ago. During the holy month, Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex during daylight hours as an act of sacrifice and purification.
On Friday, a group of Algerian farmers south of Algiers fought off armed assailants, killing three, but not before a 10-year-old child was killed by the attackers.
Four members of the farmers’ families were injured in the attack, which took place in a rural area near the town of Chebli, 15 miles south of Algiers, according to a hospital source and one of the farmers.
The farmers, from five families, were organized in one of numerous self-defense groups often sponsored by the government in an effort to stop the insurgency’s violence.
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