Killing sprees rip apart Algeria Rebellion: The vast plain south of Algiers is the Triangle of Death. The bloodshed began in 1992 as an Islamic uprising after canceled parliamentary elections. But lately, the fighting has become a murky conflict.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOUGARA, Algeria -- Tucked into vast orange plantations at the foot of the Atlas mountains, the town looks peaceful. Robed men congregate for an afternoon discussion in the shade of the cypress trees. Barefoot children play soccer on a dirty patch of open space. Women line up at the bakeries for fresh baguettes.

But the tranquillity is a facade. Less than a mile away is a farming commune where the breeze is passing through the smashed-out windows of the houses. Overturned furniture and broken pottery still cover the floors. Sun-bleached hay is stained by blood.

"My sister was shot and fell down, then her throat was cut," says Said Berkhouss, a 34-year-old farmer. "My other sister was also killed. And my mother. And my wife, she was pregnant. They slit her throat and cut open her stomach."

More than 120 people were killed here. This is the Triangle of Death, on the vast plain just south of Algiers, the Algerian capital, and there is no safety here as long as Algeria's civil war continues.

60,000 slain

At least 60,000 Algerians have been killed since the war began in 1992, when the government canceled parliamentary elections that the Islamic Salvation Front seemed certain to win. For five years, security forces have fought armed rebels in a murky conflict where it's often impossible to tell who is killing whom, or to know why the killing continues.

Bombs have shattered commuter trains. Women have been doused in gasoline and set afire. Children have been decapitated with chain. In the village of Omaria, just outside Algiers, guerrillas armed with axes and swords hacked 42 people to death. In Thalit, another 52 people dead. Near Medea, farther south, villagers were dragged out of their homes and, people say, decapitated by a guillotine mounted on the back of a truck. Earlier this month in Algiers, a bomb that exploded in a crowded market killed 10 and wounded 40.

Disappearances in prison

Thousands of people also have disappeared into the government's prisons, where human rights organizations say torture is a common practice.

"Don't underestimate the desperation that the violence represents," says Andrea Bartoli, vice president of St. Egidio, a Rome-based Catholic group that has acted as a mediator in Algeria. Unemployment is at least 30 percent. The government remains largely controlled by a group of generals and businessmen, who have run the economy into the ground.

Many Algerians saw in the Islamic Salvation Front an opportunity to voice their unhappiness.

In 1990, in elections for municipal and provincial councils, the Salvation Front won more than 50 percent of the vote. In mid-1991, it demanded immediate introduction of Islamic law. At the end of the year, it led in a first round of voting for a new Parliament. In January 1992, the government canceled the runoffs and outlawed the Front. Within days, the civil war was under way.

The government is known simply as "the Power" -- a military regime sometimes in civilian dress. It allowed parliamentary elections earlier this month, and the main government party, the National Democratic Rally won most of the seats, as expected.

Central Algiers is akin to a military zone with women and children wandering among the men on every corner with assault rifles. At the hotels, security guards search each arriving car. As one guard rummages through the trunk, another one meticulously inspects the underside of the chassis with a mirror.

Civilian militia

Here, in Bougara, members of a civilian militia armed by the government stand guard atop a bombed-out five-story building. An inscription on the wall beneath reads: "The terrorists are worried. They are women who fought against the Harka [Algeria's independence movement]. We are real men."

The official government line is that organized terrorism has been defeated. Diplomats agree that the chances of an Islamic takeover now seem slim. But what used to be an organized fundamentalist insurrection is now a random terror campaign with a new, confusing galaxy of killers. The government-censored press calls every attack the work of "terrorists." But the identities and motivations of the groups are no longer so clear.

"The armed groups are not highly organized," says a university teacher, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used. "They may kill for money, they may kill for killing's sake."

Missing security forces

Berkhouss says the people who murdered his family arrived on horseback and placed mines on the outskirts of the village to deter the security forces stationed less than a mile away. The intruders were "dirty men with beards down to their waists," he says. The violence lasted four hours.

What were the security forces doing during those four hours? Perhaps they believed the villagers were supporters of one armed group and were being attacked by another. Perhaps the soldiers believed the villagers were outlaws themselves. Perhaps the soldiers were tired of fighting.

Sitting in the mayor's office, surrounded by a dozen well-armed soldiers, Berkhouss says his village refused to aid the rebels. People speculate that the guerrillas are too weakened to attack the military so, to maintain their influence, strike against civilians. Others say that the security forces have infiltrated the guerrillas and urge attacks on villages, the better to turn the population against the guerrillas.

Berkhouss and the other survivors return to their lives, and wait for the next attack. The speculation is endless. Has he heard the rumors of a guillotine?

"I know the truck," he says casually. "It's a Mazda."

Pub Date: 6/18/97

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