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Massacres in Algeria shrouded in mystery

Bellal Faycal. Raheb Aek. Hamouda Aicha. Malika. Kaoui-tar. Bouzida Djilali. Sadek Zouahra - 5 years old.

The names are scratched on plasterboard sunken into freshly turned mounds of dirt - more than 500 mounds of dirt that, row upon row, recount the tragedy unfolding today in Algeria.The dates on most markers are the same: Sept. 23, 1997, and Aug. 28, 1997 - the massacres at Bentalha and Sidi Rais - two of the deadliest descents into violence since the start of an Islamic insurgency nearly six years ago.

Accounts of the massacres remain contradictory, and the horrors are still incomprehensible.

At the Sidi Arcine cemetery, men and women crouch beside the simple graves - many decorated with dry twigs or pebbles - breathing warm memories into the cold earth.

"My friend is dead, but I love her still," said 20-year-old Sadia from nearby Baraki. Her best friend was among a family of nine slaughtered in Sidi Rais by Islamic extremists trying to topple Algeria's military-backed government.

Sadia, who refused to give her last name, was one of dozens of mourners visiting the roadside cemetery Friday, the Muslim holy day, just two miles from Bentalha, or what is left of it.

Half of the poor dusty village is all but deserted. The other half is alive but dazed.

"What did I see? I didn't see. I lived a nightmare," said one survivor, identifying himself only as Mohamed. He said he staved off attackers with his hunting rifle.

"These are wild pigs," he said, "not terrorists."

Throats were slit, heads were severed, bodies were mutilated.

A military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed widespread reports that an infant in Bentalha had his throat slit then was burned in an oven.

"I was there when they took the baby out of the oven," he said. The infant was about six months old, the official said.

There is still no exact death toll in either massacre. The figures most often cited are at least 200 in Bentalha and nearly 400 in Rais, bed-room communities of the capital of Algiers, less than 12 miles away.

The Armed Islamic Group has claimed responsibility for these and other massacres in the insurgency that erupted in 1992 after the army canceled national elections to stop a rise to power of the Islamic Salvation Front party. An estimated 75,000 people have died.

None of the residents of Bentalha or Rais questioned during a visit Friday could describe with any precision how the massacres unfolded.

But nearly everyone said the attackers were dressed as Afghans, a reference to fighters in the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s: baggy pants and, in some cases, turbans - and always in dark colors.

Most said the attackers used bombs to seal off the areas, and again at the doors of homes.

A military barracks can be seen from the house, and Ahmed Chaou-chi said he ran to get soldiers to help.

Today, government troops blanket the area. A lookout post was set up in a scrubby field in Bentalha.

And two militiamen, armed by the government, patrolled the graveyard.

Houria Zouiten, who lost her husband in an attack three years ago, was there, paying her respects to the dead.

"Even in a cemetery, we are not safe," she said.