Reports Put Number of Algerians Slain in Past Week Near 1,000


New reports emerged Tuesday of more grisly massacres in Algeria, including the mass burning of residents in one remote western village--a wave of killing that seemed certain to add to mounting international pressure for an independent inquiry into the slaughter.

Almost 1,000 deaths have been reported in Algeria in the first week of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims. The toll makes this year’s Ramadan easily the bloodiest in six years of insurgency by anti-government radicals.

The killing is generally blamed on the Armed Islamic Group, a fanatical militia that claims to be fighting for an Islamic state.


Across the Islamic world, religious leaders and ordinary citizens have condemned the group’s brutal tactics--including gang rape, the slaying of children and pregnant women, mutilation of corpses and even the slaughter of worshipers gathered at prayer--as the antithesis of the Muslim religion.

“Each Ramadan, things get worse and worse,” lamented one weary Algiers resident Tuesday night, as news of the latest atrocities poured into the capital despite an official silence from the authorities. “We are losing ourselves now.”

The newspaper La Tribune reported that the hamlet of Chekala, in Relizane province about 150 miles southwest of Algiers, was immolated in a savage attack that began Sunday night. Up to 200 people died, it said, while another massacre Sunday in the nearby village of Mknassa left 117 dead. “It is genocide,” the newspaper said.

Army troops and paramilitary forces were reported to be scouring forested areas around the city of Relizane looking for the attackers.

Neither atrocity was immediately confirmed by Algeria’s military-backed government, which usually does not comment on such reports. When the government does acknowledge an attack, it routinely reports a lower toll than hospital workers and other observers.

The killings follow a recent pattern in which the bloody conflict has been moving away from the area of Algiers. Analysts have speculated that militants have been forced to shift their operations because the army has succeeded in recent months in rooting out guerrilla hide-outs south of Algiers, in the “Triangle of Death.”


Around Relizane, government forces are fewer and small farming villages are scattered over mountainous, wooded terrain, making them vulnerable targets. Military commanders have warned that they cannot guard every house; villagers have been told to arm themselves or to flee to better-protected larger towns.

The government has acknowledged that 78 people were killed around Relizane on Dec. 30, the first day of Ramadan. Newspapers, citing hospital workers and the detailed accounts of survivors, said the actual toll that day was 412 in four villages. Besides the latest reported massacres, in Chekala and Mknassa, newspapers have tallied 192 deaths around the country in various smaller, widely scattered attacks since the weekend began.

By conservative estimate, more than 65,000 people have been killed in Algeria since political violence spiraled after the military stepped in to block 1992 elections that an Islamist party was poised to win. Some political groups in Algeria say that more than 100,000 people have been slain.

The recent bloodshed has prompted fresh diplomatic moves by the United States and several members of the European Union to attempt to bring pressure on the government of President Liamine Zeroual to do a better job of protecting the North African country’s 28 million people.

German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said Sunday that the European Union should send aid to the Algerians, while Mary Robinson, the U.N. commissioner for human rights, last month proposed that investigators from the world body be allowed to look into violations of human rights in the country.

There have been persistent questions from human rights groups, including London-based Amnesty International, as to whether parts of the government security services may have been negligent or even allowed massacres to occur, sometimes near army barracks. But so far, any suggestion of an international role has been roundly denounced by the Algerian government as an insult and an infringement of its sovereignty.


France and the United States, in back-to-back statements Monday, urged Algerian authorities to do more to prevent massacres.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin told reporters in Washington: “It is very clear that these acts of terrorism must be condemned and must be stopped. . . . It is first and foremost the responsibility of the Algerian government to protect civilians while also respecting the rule of law. And we are encouraging the Algerian government to allow outside observers to view and study the human rights situation there.”

The statements brought angry rebukes from the Algerian government. In Algiers, the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday summoned Cameron Hume, the new U.S. ambassador, and told him that no international inquiry into the civilian massacres would be welcome, the state-owned Algerian Press Service reported.