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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Algeria hit by two massacres
Armed extremists have killed 31 people in two separate massacres in the Tiaret region of western Algeria, officials said on Thursday.

Twenty people were killed and five wounded in an attack at Ksar Chellala - the worst single attack in Algeria this year.

Another 11 people were killed in Sidi Khaled, on the outskirts of the town of Tiaret itself, which is 340 kilometres (210 miles) west of Algiers.

Most of the victims of the overnight attacks are thought to be civilians, but officials gave no further details.

Increase in violence

There has been an upsurge in violence in the Tiaret region in recent weeks, in the run-up to legislative elections on 30 May.

Troops search a suspected militant
Violence continues despite tight security
Sixteen people, including eight children and four women, were killed last week during another attack in the region.

The hardline Armed Islamic Group (GIA) - one of two main rebel groups fighting the secular government - is known to operate in the area.

The GIA has stepped up its attacks since appointing Rachid Abou Tourab as its new leader in March after his predecessor Antar Zouabri was killed by security forces.

Mr Tourab said in a statement shortly after his appointment that he would pursue the movement's radical policies until Algeria was an Islamic state.

Since the beginning of the year more than 450 people, including about 150 Islamic fundamentalists, have been killed in Algeria's brutal civil war.

May elections

Despite the increasing violence - and a threatened boycott in the unstable Berber-speaking region of Kabylia - the country's military-backed authorities are determined to press ahead with the elections as scheduled.

Civil war
Erupted after 1991 election result was cancelled by army
Islamists claimed enough support to take power
Total death toll put at 150,000
The poll is not expected to produce any change in the political system, which the BBC's correspondent Hebah Saleh says is firmly in the grip of the country's military and intelligence circles.

Nor is the election likely to have an impact on regional security.

All serious opposition has been marginalised, and critics of the regime say Algeria is in a state of political paralysis.

Prison fire

The latest attacks come just a day after 14 prisoners were killed and 11 injured in a fire that spread through a high security jail in the country's capital Algiers.

The blaze in the Serkadji prison appeared to have been started by prisoners who set fire to their mattresses after seeing a 19-year-old inmate try to commit suicide.

Most of the detainees at the prison are Islamists sentenced to death or serving life sentences after being found guilty of terrorist activities.

They include army officer Lembarek Boumaarafi, sentenced to death for the assassination of President Mohammed Boudiaf in 1992.

It is not yet known whether Boumaraafi was among the casualties.

See also:

01 May 02 | Middle East
'Fourteen dead' in Algeria prison fire
18 Sep 01 | Middle East
Algeria tackles Islamic militants
06 Mar 02 | Middle East
Militants 'storm Algerian barracks'
24 Apr 02 | Middle East
Families die in Algerian attack
11 Jan 02 | Middle East
Algeria's decade of bloody conflict
18 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Algeria
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