Wednesday, March 4, 2009



Today, March 04, 2009,

Algerian security forces have been placed on high alert ahead of a presidential election on April 9, to counter the threat posed by Muslim fundamentalist extremists, the government has announced.

The local media on Tuesday reported the killing of 16 Islamists in a military operation last weekend, when Interior Minister Yahid Zerhouni announced security measures would "cover the whole national territory, in particular the sensitive areas."

Zerhouni said around 120 fundamentalists had been slain since September 2008 and stressed that "big steps forward in the anti-terrorist struggle" would help "to protect candidates, voters and polling stations" during the campaign and the election.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was first elected to office in 1999 on a platform of national reconciliation with "repentant Islamists," which went to a successful referendum, is seeking a third terms of office, aged 71.

Last August, the north African country was swept by a sudden wave of bloody suicide bombings, of which the most terrible was at Issers in the Boumerdes region, 50 kilometres south of Algiers, where 48 people were killed.

Responsibility for all the attacks was claimed by Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, formed by remnants of one of the fundamentalist groups that waged a insurgent war on the secular regime mainly through the 1990s, at a cost of at least 150,000 lives.

The security forces responded to those attacks and more recent killings with vast search and destroy sweeps in areas where the Islamists hide out, like the mountainous, wooded and rocky Kabylie provinces of the northeast, where it can be hard to track them down.

"These very mobile groups often have only three or four members and it's not easy to find their hideouts," stated a security specialist, who asked not to be named.

But the army on Saturday killed 16 Islamist fighters during an operation in the mountains of Blida province, about 100 kilometres south of Algiers, private newspapers and the state-owned Chaine III radio reported.

Earlier reports said seven men perished.

A first militant was killed on Thursday before the army took the rest of the group by surprise on Saturday.

There has been no official confirmation of the militants' deaths.

When Zerhouni said on Sunday that some 120 militants have been killed by security forces since September, he stated that three "major terrorist leaders" were among them, after the bloodshed of the August bombings at Issers and in Kabylie.

The minister added that during the same period 22 militants gave themselves up to the security services, while "322 terrorists, many of whom were not armed but directly implicated in attacks, were arrested and about 150 weapons seized."

Measures to infiltrate the Islamist network of "terrorist groups" have paid off, Zerhouni said, adding that these were "proof of an evolution in the techniques of gathering intelligence."

Car drivers in Algeria have long been accustomed to permanent checkpoints or sporadic roadblocks manned by the security forces on highways and around towns, particularly the capital on the Mediterranean coast.

The police monitor traffic and identities and search some cars, and they are sometimes equipped with explosives detectors.

Zerhouni said that Algeria currently has 160,000 police officers and the government's aim is to raise that number to 200,000.