Throats slit as 20 are slaughtered in bus attack


MUSLIM fundamentalist gunmen massacred 20 Algerian civilians in a dawn ambush on a bus yesterday, slitting throats and decapitating some of their victims. It was the latest in a bloody series of attacks in the stronghold region of the fundamentalist Armed Islamic Group (GIA).

Seven people were wounded in the ambush, which took place at Benhamdani near Blida, about 50km south of Algiers.

The latest slaughter brings to more than 150 the number of civilians killed in one month in the Mititdja region, which lies between the suburbs of the capital and the Atlas mountains.

The Mitidja plain and the mountains are ideal terrain for fundamentalist gangs and are used as a base by the most radical guerrilla movement, the GIA, and its new leader, Mr Antar Zouabri, alias Abou Talha.

The incident came one day after extremists killed five men and three women from a single family in the village of Bouinan in the same region, where the army and civil defence units seem powerless to prevent the present infiltrations of villages.

According to press reports yesterday, some 15 attackers slit the throats or cut off the heads of four of the family members, including two people in their 80s. The cries of the victims alerted members of the village's self defence group, and the attackers, afraid of being caught, shot and killed four more people before fleeing.

Last week the military launched a major operation against the GIA, and MiG warplanes bombed the Mitidja area. But a few days later, a fundamentalist group killed 19 villagers at Benachour, 2km from Blida, which is the biggest garrison town in Algeria. Hundreds of terrorised villagers fled the zone.

Muslim extremists took up arms against Algeria's military backed government in 1992, after the second round of elections the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win were cancelled. The civil war has claimed more than 50,000 lives, according to western estimates, and at least 80,000, according to the head of one of Algeria's human rights leagues.

The authorities say they are now up against only "residual terrorism" and the number of car bomb attacks and assassinations of prominent people such as political activists, journalists and intellectuals, appears to have dropped in recent months.

However, attacks on villages have increased and the government is pursuing efforts to mobilise "patriots" and set up communal defence groups, now thought to number some 200,000 men.

. One of the leaders of FIS in exile, Mr Anouar Haddam, has been arrested by immigration services in the United States, it was learned yesterday. Mr Haddam, who goes under the title of president of the FIS parliamentary delegation, was arrested on December 6th, the vice president of the FIS's equivalent body in France, Said Lahlali, said.