10 seconds ago 2009-06-22T03:12:44-07:00
ALGIERS (AFP) – Islamist rebels ambushed a military convoy in Algeria and killed at least 18 police in the deadliest attack on government forces in the last six months, local sources told AFP on Thursday.
The convoy was returning to barracks at Bordj Bou Arreridj, southeast of Algiers, after escorting Chinese construction workers to a motorway project, when it came under attack on Wednesday evening, the sources said.
The local sources told AFP at least 18 paramilitary police had been killed, while two newspapers put the number at 24.
One newspaper, Echourouk, reported that the rebels set off two roadside bombs and then opened fire on the gendarmes, killing them and then stealing their weapons and uniforms.
The ambush was not immediately confirmed by the Algerian authorities but a major security operation has been launched in the region, with troops deployed on the ground to search for the perpetrators, backed by helicopters.
The reports said the attack occurred outside Mansourah, near Bordj Bou Arreridj, on the road from Constantine to Annaba, two major cities in eastern Algeria, at around 8:00 pm (1900 GMT).
The Chinese group CITIC-CRCC has a contract to build a section of motorway from Algiers to Bordj Bou Arreridj.
If confirmed, the attack would be the biggest by Islamists in Algeria, who call themselves Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), since the suicide bombing of a police academy killed 48 people in August 2008.
That blast ripped through a crowd of young people, some accompanied by relatives, who were gathering at the academy to take part in an entry test.
Suicide attacks, never previously practised by Islamist groups in Algeria, have since ceased, the Islamists instead switching to isolated gun and bomb attacks on army patrols.
One such attack killed eight police officers and two teachers on June 2 at Timezrit, near Boumerdes, around 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Algiers.
Nine soldiers were killed near Biskra, 425 kilometres south of the capital, in a May 26 ambush which wounded 10 others.
Security forces have in turn inflicted heavy losses on the Islamist groups which have taken refuge in mountainous terrain, particularly the Kabylie region east of Algiers.
At least five members of one group were killed on June 12 near Constantine, as well as several Islamist clan chiefs in different regions.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was relected in April for a third mandate, began a policy of national reconciliation in 1999 after more than a decade of Islamist violence which killed at least 150,000 people in the north African country.
Thousands of hardline Islamists have since handed themselves in and Bouteflika hinted during his election campaign at a possible referendum aimed at granting a general amnesty for those who give up their arms.